Rascovar: Hogan politicizes ethics reforms

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Gov. Larry Hogan climbs the State House steps after a press conference on an ethics reform package he was delivering to the legislature.

Del. Dan Morhaim’s response to this article is posted as a comment at the bottom of this article. Morhaim’s letter, along with Barry Rascovar’s comments on the delegate’s response, are posted on Rascovar’s blog, politicalmaryland.com

By Barry Rascovar

For MarylandReporter.com

Two bleak views of American society were on display last week coming straight from our elected executives – expressed first by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and the next day by President Donald Trump at his inauguration.

On Thursday, Hogan posed in front of the State House steps so he could rail against the “culture of corruption” in Maryland’s legislature – though evidence of this “culture” is limited to a handful of examples. Then he marched up the steps in photo-op fashion to present his ethics reform bills to House and Senate officials.

On Friday, Trump used his first speech as president to paint a deeply negative portrait of the country – despite years of prosperity and slow, steady growth. “This American carnage” he called the situation.

In each case, the Republican speakers left no doubt they were riding to the rescue on a white horse to save citizens from a clear and present danger perpetrated by the Democratic establishment.

Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric was understandable. That’s his style. This billionaire New Yorker sees himself as champion of “the people.” He says he inherited an Augean stable of stench – miserably failed government policies only “The Donald” can clean up and “make America great again.”

He promised radical change and his Friday message signaled his intention to follow through on his pledge to disrupt the status quo.

White knight in Annapolis

Hogan’s bombastic rhetoric on legislative corruption also was understandable. It’s all about positioning Hogan in his reelection bid as the white knight doing battle with evil Democrats in the General Assembly.

Recent indictments of an ex-state legislator, a nominee for a House of Delegates vacancy and the Prince George’s County liquor board chairman set the stage perfectly for Hogan’s call to clean up the political arena.

But he combined that call for ethical government with continual bashing of the Democratic establishment in the state legislature.

Remember the “let’s work together” governor who told lawmakers only a week earlier how much he wanted to set partisanship aside and solve problems together?

That proved a mirage.

The real Larry Hogan resurfaced on Thursday, full of outrage about the Democratic-controlled legislature’s “climate of corruption” he wants to erase. Instead of sitting down and devising a joint ethics package with lawmakers, Hogan took the partisan route sure to grab all the headlines for himself.

Weak Ethics Commission

Hogan says he wants lawmakers to turn over the power to punish wayward colleagues to the State Ethics Commission, which has very limited enforcement and punishment tools.

Indeed, the commission already oversees lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms – and in 2015 fined four legislators a whopping $250 each for missing the filing deadline.

The power to discipline, humble and even eject elected legislators lies solely with the legislative bodies themselves.

Hogan wants to change that, though whether a panel controlled by the governor should hold such authority over legislative branch officials could bump up against separation of powers provisions in the Maryland constitution.

In practical terms, Hogan faces a bigger problem: His reform plan won’t work.

It won’t root out or stop wayward lawmakers from pursuing unethical behavior tied to monetary payoffs.

How corruption happens

Legislative corruption in Annapolis usually occurs when a delegate or senator accepts cash or favors from businesses in exchange for helping those businesses gain passage of favorable bills or friendly regulatory actions.

Two former delegates are embroiled in a liquor board payoff scandal in Prince George’s County. Hogan’s reforms wouldn’t have stopped the alleged payoffs.

Why? Because the transactions were hidden from view. There was no way Hogan or the legislature or the State Ethics Commission could have known a crime was being committed.

The lawmakers apparently lied on their disclosure forms, knew they were doing it and continued pushing legislation to aid businesses that stuffed cash in their pockets. Only dogged work by federal prosecutors unearthed what was going on.

The same holds true in the case of Ulysses Currie, accused in 2013 of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars as a consultant for a supermarket chain while pressing state and local bureaucrats to give the company favorable treatment.

Hogan’s reform proposals wouldn’t have unearthed Currie’s questionable behavior. (A federal jury failed to convict Currie, whose defense boiled down to admitting that he wasn’t mentally alert to the fact his actions might be criminal.

Marijuana mischief

Even in a current case involving Del. Dan Morheim of Baltimore County, Hogan’s ethics package would not have revealed Morheim’s unorthodox behavior or his links to a marijuana growing and distribution firm vying for state licenses.

Morheim, who claims he abided by legislative ethics rules, kept his employment arrangement with the marijuana company secret. Only when the company started touting the expertise of its newest employee to help win state licenses did reporters shine a light on this odiferous situation.

It’s clear state ethics laws need considerable strengthening. Unfortunately Hogan chose to turn the issue to his political advantage rather than initiating a non-partisan crusade aimed at overhauling government standards of conduct.

He opted to take the moral high ground and denigrate the legislative establishment because it helps his political advancement. That’s smart politics but dumb governance.

Like Trump, Hogan too often prefers a sledge hammer instead of a peace pipe. He’d rather boost his poll numbers than do the hard work of thrashing out complex details and compromises with Democrats in order to make significant ethics reforms happen.

To the public, though, Hogan is the hero. It is part of his strategy to claim the title of good-government reformer in the next election.

Democratic legislators now must carve out tougher ethics provisions governing public officials on their own. Hogan has made them the bad guys in this matter and they must prove him wrong.

But if ethics reforms are successfully enacted into law, citizens won’t give Democratic legislators much credit. They’ve been outflanked by Hogan once again.

Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be contacted at brascovar@hotmail.com

  • Skip727

    If Mr. Rascovar only knew the lack of ethics running rampant not only in the Legislature but in other divisions within State government, he would dial back his rhetoric on Governor Hogan.

    • Just Little ol’ Me

      Other divisions of State government would be the Executive branch led by Mr Hogan. So if they are so unethical perhaps you should talk to the governor as to why he’s allowing his people to be so unethical.

      But if you know something that we (and Mr Rascovar) don’t know, please… by all means tell us.

      • Skip727

        The Governor is not the only elected official that has control over other divisions.

  • David Taylor

    Again, Barry Rascovar is completely out of touch with the ethical lapses in Annapolis that have been going on for years. Kudos to Governor Hogan for taking it on.

  • Johnny

    This guy is seriously incapable of writing anything about Larry Hogan without trying to compare him to Trump. Its tabloid journalism, and its pathetic. Maybe if he wrote half decent articles, he wouldn’t feel the need to try and prop them up and create extra controversy by doing this. Can Maryland Reporter get some decent liberal writers who can actually report on Maryland politics without injecting Trump into every point? Then maybe Barry can go get a job over at the National Enquirer.

  • Josh Friedman

    Who appoints the State Ethics Board; The Governor. What this is about is giving the Governor the power to remove legislators. If Gov Hogan truly cares about cleaning up government, he should support Del Ebersole’s bill that would prohibit collusion between PACs and candidate campaigns.

  • Dale McNamee

    If Governor Hogan were a Democrat,Barry would be giddy and gushy…

  • lenlazarick

    Here is Delegate Morhaim’s response to this column.
    Mr. Rascovar/Barry:
    “You got several important points wrong in your articles about me.
    “First, this investigation began because of an erroneous Washington Post report that suggested I had not made proper disclosures. In fact, I did. The Post has since retracted its erroneous report.
    “The Washington Post made the following correction on 10/14/2016 that recognized that I followed all disclosure rules. The Post wrote: ‘Correction: Earlier versions of this article included incomplete information about what Maryland Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County) reported on financial disclosure forms. While Morhaim did not report that he had been hired as a consultant to be the clinical director of the prospective medical cannabis company Doctor’s Orders, he did disclose that he might work as a consultant in the medical cannabis field and had received income as a consultant. Maryland law requires lawmakers to disclose sources of income but does not require those who work as consultants or lawyers to reveal their clients. A July 14 letter from Dea Daly, ethics counsel to the General Assembly, said Morhaim was not required to disclose his consulting clients on the form.’
    “In an email (9/28/2016) sent to me, the Washington Post reporter concluded that, ‘I plan on reporting that nothing in these emails shows that you were trying to lobby for Doctor’s Orders and nothing shows you pushing regulations that appear to narrowly benefit Doctor’s Orders.’ On 9/29/2016, the Post published, ‘The emails do not show Morhaim directly pushing for any changes¬ that appear to be tailored specifically to benefit Doctor’s Orders’. (This statement appeared in paragraph 20 of a 24-paragraph article.)
    “It’s unfortunate and inappropriate that you’ve based your articles on allegations solely from other media. At no time did you contact me to get my perspective on these issues.
    “Second, before I had any business dealings with a medical cannabis applicant, I consulted with the Legislative Ethics Committee’s counsel about its propriety, and I followed their advice. All the proper disclosures as required by State Ethics Law were made, and these are in the public record.
    “Third, because I was following the written advice of the Legislative Ethics Committee staff, it was felt that there might be a conflict of interest on the part of that staff. Therefore an independent counsel was deemed advisable to insure that the investigation was above suspicion. There is no suggestion that retaining the independent counsel reflects on the gravity of the investigation. It’s also important to note that no charges or complaint have been filed in the case.
    “Fourth, I had no contact with any medical cannabis applicant until after the enabling 2015 legislation was enacted. I have been fighting for Maryland patients to have access to medical cannabis for the last 14 years, and my record on disinterested health public policy is second to none. For the one related bill I introduced after that (HB104 – 2016), I received clearance in writing in advance from the ethics counselor. Further, neither I, nor any member of my family, has any financial interest in any cannabis entity.
    “Fifth, my consulting work for an applicant was never kept secret. That’s why we’re having this discussion to begin with. It was properly disclosed on the application, which is a public document. I didn’t tout this association because this would have been improper. Had I done so, it would have been perceived as lobbying for the applicant instead of letting the rigorous double blind selection process of the Cannabis Commission play out. My consulting work was focused exclusively on clinical issues and concluded in the fall of 2015.
    “Sixth, my work as a consultant and as a practicing physician is not different in any way from the work done by the many legislators – in our citizen legislature – who are lawyers, accountants, or businesspersons. They are required to disclose that they have dealings with subject matter affected by state legislation, but as consultants they are not required to name their clients on the Legislative Ethics disclosure forms. The ethics counselor, as part of the disclosure filing process, confirmed this policy to me in writing.
    “If you wish, documentation of any or all of the above can be provided to you.
    ” Last, I respectfully ask you to do what the Washington Post did: print a correction to the facts.
    “Thank you for your consideration, and should you choose to write further articles about this one aspect of my legislative activities, I trust you will keep in mind the factual record provided to you now.
    “Sincerely,
    “Dan
    “Del. Dan Morhaim”
    ###