By Barry Rascovar
Jan. 23, 2017 – 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 stood in front of the State House steps at a staged event 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 one of 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.
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 legislator 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.