ANNAPOLIS — A Prince George’s County delegate whose law practice includes representing clients who claim adverse reaction to vaccines has withdrawn a bill that would have removed a religious exemption to the state’s vaccination law.
Democratic Del. Benjamin Barnes said he pulled the bill not for any potential ethical concerns but because of the state’s high vaccination rate.
“Maryland has a high rate of vaccinations,” Barnes said. “This seemed like a solution in search of a problem at least for Maryland. It’s certainly a national issue.”
But Barnes’ sponsorship of the bill is a cause for concern because the delegate’s law practice includes representing clients in a federal court that awards damages to people who claim they’ve been harmed by vaccinations, one government watchdog said.
“It certainly raises some red flags,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.
Barnes, a partner in the Bowie law firm Hall, Butler, Macleay, Barnes & Maloney, is the only attorney from Maryland on a referral list provided by the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, a special federal court sometimes referred to as vaccine court. The lawyers on the voluntary referral list are not the only attorneys who can represent clients in vaccine court
Barnes called the claim of a conflict of interest “tenuous.”
“Am I a sociopath? I’m putting in a bill so people can get vaccinated so I can represent them?” Barnes said. “I didn’t put it in so more people would get vaccinated so I can represent them.”
In Maryland, about .8 percent of students — fewer than 1,400 children — cited a religious reason for opting out of vaccinations during the 2013-2014 school year. An additional 1,900 cited a medical exemption, according to statistics provided to the legislature by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The court allows people who believe they have suffered damages as a result of standard childhood vaccinations to fast-track cases.
It was established to help alleviate the burden of such cases in state and federal courts. Plaintiffs can still choose to file in state or federal court but few do.
The court has awarded $1.8 billion in damages to 2,319 people since its inception in 1988, according to the court website.
Barnes said he handles few cases each year and believes he is one of two lawyers in the state who does this type of work. Since 2006, Barnes has represented five clients in vaccine court.
But it is those cases that raise questions about whether Barnes should have, at a minimum, filed an ethics disclosure citing how his business may be affected by the legislation, Bevan-Dangel said.
The ethics guide for legislators states that a conflict of interest is presumed when the legislator has ”direct interest in an enterprise which would be affected by the legislator’s vote on proposed legislation” but not if the “interest is common to all members of a profession or occupation of which the legislator is a member.”
Barnes said he did not file any additional disclosures related to this bill.
“My head wasn’t even there,” Barnes said. “I disclosed that I represent people who are injured. Those are part of my general disclosures. I just think it’s such a stretch. Someone would have to actually believe it could be a conflict and for anybody to believe that anyone would put a bill in to make people get something they know is going to hurt them so they get more business, the extra 2,000 people who would get vaccinated would probably amount to zero adverse reactions. It’s just so tenuous. Good lord, we’d be putting in a disclaimer for everything.”
Bevan-Dangel said the law is generally meant to allow lawmakers to bring their real-world experience, including their work experience, to the legislature. The small number of lawyers in the state that do this kind of work makes the bill and sponsor stand out. She said Barnes at the very least should have filed a disclosure form.
“We certainly feel he should file an amended report and seek ethics guidance and acting proactively is always a wise course,” Bevan-Dangel said.