Recent Maryland political scandals have inspired a flurry of legislation in the General Assembly seeking to clamp down on corrupt public officials. And a special Senate committee is recommending changes to the legislature's ethics rules.
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The bills have bipartisan support, though their prospects are uncertain.
Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said that while the watchdog group hasn't taken a position on any of the bills, it welcomes the interest in good-government measures.
"Those bills — along with the special ethics committee set up in the Senate — address some reform that is necessary and vital at this time," she said.
The bill that would throw state and local elected officials out of office upon a finding of guilt rather than upon sentencing, as current law provides, would require a constitutional amendment. If the bill passes, it would go on the November election ballot for voters' approval. The measure would apply to all felonies and to misdemeanors related to actions in office.
Such legislation would have forced Mayor Sheila Dixon to leave office as soon as she was found guilty of embezzlement, a misdemeanor, on Dec. 1, 2009. Instead, the Democrat remained in office until sentencing Feb. 4, 2010. A similar case occurred in Prince George's County, where Democratic Councilwoman Leslie Johnson pleaded guilty last June to federal evidence-tampering charges but remained in office for another month. Both continued to collect their government salaries until leaving office.
Del. Jolene Ivey, a Prince George's Democrat, introduced the bill along with more than 70 co-sponsors — enough for a majority in the House of Delegates. Sen. Victor Ramirez, also a Prince George's Democrat, has introduced a companion measure in the upper chamber with more than 30 co-sponsors, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
Ivey said the interests of constituents should outweigh those of the officeholder. She pointed to the cases of Johnson and Anne Arundel County Councilman Daryl D. Jones.
Jones' colleagues voted to remove him from office after he was sentenced to five months in prison for failure to file tax returns, a misdemeanor unrelated to his office.
"Once someone is convicted, they're not really going to be effective any more for their constituents," Ivey said.
Technically, a conviction is not entered until the time of sentencing, but the amendment would oust an official at the time of a guilty verdict or plea. It includes a provision for reinstatement in the event of a successful appeal.
The pension bill, introduced by Del. Ron George with a bipartisan group of about 60 co-sponsors, would eliminate part of the retirement income for people convicted of certain offenses committed while in office — even if they plead or are found guilty years later.
George, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said the bill was prompted by cases such as those of Dixon and Leslie Johnson's husband, former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson, who pleaded guilty to federal bribery and extortion charges last year — about six months after leaving office in late 2010. Both were able to retain their pensions.
Had his proposal been in effect, George said, Dixon would have lost the part of her pension earned while she was mayor and Johnson would have forfeited the retirement benefits from his eight years as executive. George said pension credits earned in previous offices — such as Dixon's time on the City Council and Johnson's service as Prince George's state's attorney — would not be affected.
The bill, which has more than 60 House sponsors from both parties, would apply primarily to felonies and to misdemeanors related to the office but would also include any violent crime, among other offenses, George said. Some cases, similar to Councilman Jones' recent guilty plea to tax charges, would be left to the discretion of the courts, George said.
George said that a long-serving lawmaker such as former Baltimore County Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, who spent almost 20 years in office before resigning in 2002 and then was convicted in 2007 of offenses committed during his final years in office, would have lost the pension for his entire Senate tenure.
"If you want to stay in office that long, you're just going to have to be more careful," George said.
Also pending is a bill introduced by House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell that would prohibit any state official from "directly or indirectly" soliciting anyone to retain a particular lobbyist or government relations firm. Unlike the other bills, O'Donnell said, it was not prompted by a particular corruption case.
"I have heard a lot of innuendo over the years and a lot of rumor," the Southern Maryland Republican said.
O'Donnell said the measure, which has bipartisan cosponsorship, passed the House unanimously last year but died in the Senate.
A special committee that Senate President Miller set up after Sen. Ulysses S. Currie was acquitted of federal bribery charges last year is recommending changes to the General Assembly's ethics rules. Those rules, among other things, require lawmakers to disclose sources of income and other possible conflicts of interest.
The committee is supporting legislation that would make those disclosure forms available online beginning July 1, 2013. The proposal would apply to disclosures filed by legislators, statewide elected officials and top executive branch appointees. The panel also wants to eliminate a requirement that officials be notified when someone examines their report.
Members of the panel have said that they may recommend additional changes to the ethics rules.
Senator Currie broke one already on the books: The Prince George's senator admits he did not disclose more than $200,000 in consulting payments from a supermarket company for which he was seeking government help. The General Assembly's joint ethics committee is considering Currie's case.