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Editorial Advisory Board: Currie’s ethics hearing should be open to the public

There are times when doors to the usually secret hearings of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics should be flung wide open. The case of state Sen. Ulysses S. Currie, which the committee is expected to hear soon, is one of them.

After a month-and-a-half trial in federal court last fall, a jury found the Prince George’s County Democrat not guilty of bribery, conspiracy, extortion, and making false statements in failing to disclose work he performed for a grocery store chain while serving as a legislator. That finding, however, did not end every probe into his conduct. The General Assembly has its own set of ethics rules against which Sen. Currie’s conduct will now be measured.

Usually, ethics hearings are kept confidential on the theory that they are basically personnel inquiries whose subjects are entitled to privacy. In fact, it’s a requirement, at least initially. The accusations against Sen. Currie, however, have been publicly and widely aired, though in a different forum. Therefore, his claim to privacy vanished long ago.

There has already been some discussion on whether Sen. Currie’s behavior was unethical. Having “a conflict of interest does not violate federal law,” Sen. Currie’s attorney said on the last day of his trial. After they acquitted him, some jurors said that what Sen. Currie had done seemed unethical and recommended that his General Assembly colleagues look into it.

A certain amount of government business takes place when the public is not watching. Some of it has to be that way; much does not. The body entrusted with ensuring that Maryland public officials behave ethically can keep the proceedings against Sen. Currie secret. However, a 3/4 supermajority of the committee can end secrecy in a case if doing so would uphold the integrity of the investigation. The person being investigated can also waive confidentiality.

The allegations against this sitting senator have put the character of the General Assembly under a cloud. A private hearing into Sen. Currie’s conduct could look like legislators taking care of their own, regardless of the eventual outcome.

“The more transparent government is, the more faith citizens have in it,” observed Maryland Common Cause Executive Director Susan Wichmann, urging that the Currie hearing be open to the public.

We agree and ask the members of the ethics committee not to conduct these proceedings behind closed doors. If the committee has already met on this subject, we urge that the committee release a transcript of the proceedings to date and open all future proceedings involving the allegations against Sen. Currie.

Editorial Advisory Board
James B. Astrachan, Chair
Laurel Albin
John Bainbridge
Neil Duke
Eric Easton
Arthur F. Fergenson
Elizabeth Kameen
Wesley D. Blakeslee
C. William Michaels
William Reynolds
Frederic Smalkin
Norman Smith
Donna Hill Staton
H. Mark Stichel
Christopher West