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Maryland Senate panel tackles ethics reform

As Maryland lawmakers consider sanctions against one of their own, a new committee of seven senators will be searching for ways to make the state’s ethics laws more open and transparent and toughen sanctions against lawmakers who break them.

The Senate Special Committee on Ethics Reform will compile a list of suggested reforms by March 1.

Meanwhile, a joint General Assembly committee will hold hearings on Sen. Ulysses Currie’s failure to disclose work for a grocery store chain.

Jurors who acquitted Currie, D-Prince George’s, in November of conspiracy, bribery, extortion and other federal charges said after the trial that there may have been conflicts of interest and that those ethical questions should be handled by the General Assembly.

“It’s not news to anybody that public trust nationally in public institutions is very low right now,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin, the Montgomery County Democrat heading the committee.

The last review of ethics laws was done in 1999.

Raskin described the laws as “catch as catch can” and “improvised” to plug holes revealed by scandals.

The group will examine disclosure issues next week. Maryland has been much maligned for the relative inaccessibility of financial disclosure documents filed by public officials and many state workers.

Some 12,000 are filed every year with the State Ethics Commission, but members of the public have to travel to the commission’s offices, fork over their drivers licenses, record whose forms they wish to review and sign their names before they get their hands on the paperwork.

“We’re not making good enough use of the internet to get essential information to the public,” said Raskin.

Lawmakers can also request that they be notified if anybody requests to view their financial disclosure documents.

“That does create a little bit of a crimp on some people’s style,” said Sen. Joe Getty, R-Carroll.

But Sen. Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, questioned the importance of the online access issue.

“Is that the main problem with ethics reform?” he asked.

The special committee will also look at the sanctions that can be imposed against lawmakers who break the rules and the issue of law-breaking public officials and workers who can still collect pensions even after their convictions.

Rules only give the General Assembly four options to deal with ethics violations — do nothing, issue a reprimand, issue a censure or expel the a member.

“That goes from 0 to 100 with not much in between,” said Raskin.

The senator said he would like to examine financial sanctions and formally stripping party or committee posts as potential penalties.

State law also allows state employees — elected officials and bureaucrats, both — to collect their pensions if they retire before their convictions.

“I wonder whether the law should be if you are convicted of something that took place while you were in office, relating to your office,” then you should lose some or all of your pension, Raskin said.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore City, said the committee should also look at adding sanctions for repeat offenders and closing “revolving doors” between government posts and lobbying firms.

“I think that also should apply to agencies, State Highway Administration, with what happened there,” he said, referring to an a pair of highly critical audits that showed former SHA employees took jobs working on contracts they had a hand in awarding during their time with the state.