Friday, July 11, 2008

On Senator Currie and the Ethics of Office

The recent revelations of Senator Ulysses Currie’s relationship with Shoppers Food and Pharmacy may be the beginning of the fall of a man once widely thought to be an admirable public servant. But it is more than that: it is a warning about the kinds of conflicts that can happen in a citizen legislature.

Maryland, like most states, allows state legislators to hold outside employment. The General Assembly meets for three months each year (not including special sessions) and pays its members over $40,000 annually. Nevertheless, members of legislatures with similar configurations to Maryland’s report that they spend 70% of the equivalent of a full-time job on their legislative work. These positions are clearly time-consuming, even for rank-and-file members lacking Senator Currie’s responsibilities.

The benefit of a citizen legislature is that it allows members to bring significant expertise to their jobs. But there is a price: the potential for conflicts between a legislator’s public and private roles.

The Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics Guide lays out general rules for dealing with conflicts of interest. Legislators must disclose their financial dealings, including employment, contracts and corporate ownership; refrain from voting on matters of direct and personal financial interest to themselves, their relatives and their employers; and file disclaimers before voting on other matters with more indirect conflicts of interest.

The following statement on page 13 of the guide is relevant to Senator Currie’s case:

The Ethics Law states that a member of the General Assembly is prohibited from assisting or representing another party, for compensation, in a matter before or involving any unit of the State government or a local subdivision of the State, unless covered by one of the exemptions to the prohibition. The prohibition relates to representation in the course of any type of employment relationship, including regular salaried employment, contractual consultant work, and representation in a professional capacity (e.g., attorney-client.)
None of the exemptions to this rule apply to the allegations against Senator Currie. This is a clear problem for him as he was a paid consultant to Shoppers – a relationship that he did not disclose.

But there is more. Consider this account of the evidence of Senator Currie’s lobbying for Shoppers reported in the Post:

The documents, released by several state transportation agencies, show a pattern of interventions by the Prince George's Democrat dating to at least 2003, not long after he became chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee.

Currie held meetings with state officials and made phone calls about traffic lights at Shoppers stores in Owings Mills and Laurel and about road changes at a store in Anne Arundel County.

“Senator Currie asks me every time he sees me whether we have resolved the Reisterstown Road Shoppers Food Warehouse issue,” Neil J. Pedersen, the head of the State Highway Administration, wrote in a 2004 e-mail to a staffer. “How close are we to resolving it?”
Neil Pedersen has been the State Highway Administrator since 2003. He is not regarded as a political player but rather as a highly-respected professional. He is one of only a handful of powerful officials to survive the transition between the Ehrlich and O’Malley administrations. The State Highway Administration oversees more than a billion dollars a year in capital projects across the state. This agency is not a minor organization and any legislator can only harass it so much.

It is a matter of political capital, that intangible stock of favors, influence and goodwill that is vital to the fortunes of any politician. It must be raised energetically and spent carefully. Even Senate President Mike Miller, the most feared politician in the state, does not wantonly bully his Senators on every single issue but only on what he views as the most important ones. If Senator Currie spent as much political capital on the needs of Shoppers as the Post suggests, what was left over for his constituents?

The most typical comment by state legislators I have spoken with about Senator Currie has been some version of, “He was the last person I expected to be involved with something like this.” If the Senator hid his conduct behind a cloak of propriety, then everyone in Annapolis should look around carefully at everyone else. There may very well be others like Senator Currie who have yet to be revealed, at least for now.

The bottom line is this: when state legislators set foot into the statehouse, they work for us – the people – not for their employers or their extracurricular paymasters. The politicians need to remember that. So too do the voters.

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