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Does 'everybody' bend the rules? Some in Annapolis think so

July 28, 2000

Does 'everybody' bend the rules? Some in Annapolis think so



Seven years ago, a Very Important Bill was up for debate in Annapolis. It was believed to be a good bill for the people of Maryland, but potential trouble for the big hospital, insurance and medical interests.

Two of the bill's supporters, the story went, feared the measure would be crushed by a hoard of lobbyists during the committee hearing, so they came up with a plan.

They introduced a piece of ghost legislation that the big business lobbyists would find even more offensive than the original bill, then had the ghost bill's hearing scheduled for the same time (but in a different committee room) as the bill they favored.

Sure enough, on the afternoon the Very Important Bill was to be heard, lobbyists instead flocked to the committee room where the red herring bill was being debated to ensure its defeat. Meanwhile, the VIB sailed through with nary a hitch.

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Legislative tricks aren't uncommon in Annapolis, and in this particular instance the game was played for the benefit of the good guys.

But recently a more sinister legislative game was unearthed first by the Baltimore Sun, and later in the courts.

Lobbyist Gerry Evans was convicted of mail fraud in conection with an alleged plot to stir up fear among his paint/asbestos-company clients that pending legislation would make them easier to sue. He collected $400,000 in lobbying fees from the companies, even though there apparently was never any serious move by the lawmakers to introduce such a bill.

Prosecutors alleged that Del. Tony Fulton, who was acquitted of wrongdoing, allowed himself to be used as a red herring, threatening to introduce a paint bill and heightening paint companies' fears. No bill was ever filed, but prosecutors tried to make the case that Fulton was rewarded with a $10,000 real estate commission on a building purchased by Evans' firm.

Fulton's explanation, according to The Baltimore Sun, was "that his goal in threatening to introduce the paint-liability legislation was not to help Evans alarm his clients, but to pressure the paint companies to contribute money to community projects in Fulton's district."

Fulton seemed almost proud of this, and given our recent track record you could be excused for almost wishing some of our own lawmakers might be so "creative" in bringing money home to the district.

Fulton also enlisted the ever-popular "everybody does it" defense, which is no real comfort to those who like to believe that elected office comes part and parcel with some measure of integrity.

Evans' defense, that he was raking in so much dough from special interests that he hardly needed to cook up an incentive scheme, is about as comforting.

This smelly incident was the latest bellyflop for money politics in Maryland, where the lobbying business was just beginning to recover from the campaign-cash hijinks of then-top lobbyist Bruce Bereano and the recent expulsion and resignation of a senator and delegate respectively over ethics problems.

The truth is, everybody does not do it. But the lawmaker-lobbyist laws are elastic enough that anybody can, given a dark enough disposition. And that leads to the inference that the special interests, not the people, are the ones calling the shots in Annapolis.

In many cases, the problem isn't that legislators and lawmakers are breaking the law. The problem is that they aren't breaking the law - all this cozy shenanigans is nice and legal.

Here's the lobbyists idea of legal. Last year the state passed a law prohibiting lobbyists from wining and dining lawmakers in Maryland. Now, The Washington Post reports this week that Bereano will be hosting 40 lawmakers on a luxury cruise on the Gulf of Mexico complete with fine food and drink.

Because the treat, which is part of the annual Southern Legislative Conference, is technically not taking place on Maryland soil or waters, Bereano told the Post it was all "perfectly legal."

Perfectly legal and perfectly wrong.

Bereano, Evans and Co. make a joke of laws and lawmakers, make them look like fools. And lawmakers don't care because they can turn around and essentially shake down lobbyist's clients, the special interests, for favors and campaign cash - by threatening to introduce legislation harmful to the special interests if they don't play the game.

Next winter, lobbyist reform legislation will doubtless be on the table. To this point, legislative leaders have discouraged or watered down reform efforts. Worse, they seem offended that anyone could possibly believe their dear little children in the legislature would ever misbehave. If that attitude continues, in light of the landslide of evidence to the contrary, you begin to wonder whether they view clean and fair government as a good thing.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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