By Megan Poinski
Behind closed doors, members of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics presumably spent an hour Thursday morning talking about Sen. Ulysses Currie.
As the 12 committee members left the conference room where the morning meeting took place, however, they would not even confirm that much.
“We are following the rule of law as prescribed, and I am not commenting on any procedures,” Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R- Cecil and Harford counties, said to reporters waiting outside the door.
As other senators and delegates left the room, they gave similar responses.
“I’m not going to run the risk of disclosing” anything that should be kept confidential, said Del. Brian McHale, D – Baltimore City, the House chairman of the committee.
“Everything is confidential at this point,” Sen. Jamie Raskin, D – Montgomery County, said.
What is known – and what staff counsel to the committee explained – are the basic outline of what the committee is doing and the process established to follow.
A federal grand jury charged Currie, a Prince George’s Democrat and then chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, with bribery and extortion for supposedly accepting money from a grocery store in exchange for legislative favors. A federal jury found Currie not guilty of all charges, but the Legislative Ethics Committee is investigating whether Currie did anything in violation of legislative ethics.
The committee can recommend several courses for the Senate to take, ranging from no action at all to reprimanding Currie or even expelling him from the General Assembly.
Proceedings automatically confidential
According to state law, if the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics is discussing an investigation, all proceedings are automatically confidential. Committee proceedings, documents and records can be opened with a three-quarters vote of committee members – nine of the 12 members.
After the meeting began, Senate Chairman Norman Stone Jr. announced that the committee would meet in closed session, citing the exemption to the state open meeting law requiring closure of some meetings. Stone said that the committee “will discuss the issuance of confidential advisory opinions, or the possible discipline of members of the General Assembly, or both.”
It is unlikely that the committee did anything more than discuss how to proceed, especially since this type of inquiry has never been conducted in the General Assembly before. Thursday was the second day of the General Assembly session, and many other standing committees were holding organizational meetings. Neither Currie, nor an attorney representing him, was present. No witnesses were seen walking in or out of the conference room. And the meeting was only closed for an hour.
“We have to make sure everyone understands the process,” McHale said.
According to the committee’s procedures, after conducting its investigation, the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics can either make a recommendation to the Senate for disciplinary action or end the probe. Any vote on the matter will not be public, but the resulting recommendations will be.
Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, argued that the entire process should be open to the public. Common Cause stands for fair, honest and untainted government, and Wichmann said that discussing Currie behind closed doors does not reach those aims. Currie was on trial in a public courtroom last year, so many people are already familiar with the evidence and facts.
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” Wichmann said.