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A panel of state senators reviewing Maryland ethics rules decided Friday to recommend local government officials should not be required to release as much information in financial disclosure forms as officials in state government.
Under the proposal, which brought swift criticism from a government watchdog group, local officials would be able to opt out of disclosing investments in businesses that are not regulated by state or local government. They also would be able to opt out of disclosing investments in companies that are not doing business with state or local government.
“I view it as a minor fix to sweeping legislation that I introduced two years ago which requires the county and local governments to conform their ethics disclosure laws to the state laws,” Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, said.
The policy for local governments has been in effect for about a year, and some local officials have complained the rules go too far.
“In some of the smaller municipalities, people felt as if it was becoming a deterrent to getting people involved in local government, because it's so comprehensive and sweeping,” Raskin said.
But Susan Wichmann, executive director of Maryland Common Cause, described the proposed change as a step backwards, especially considering the origin of the ethics panel.
It was formed to tighten ethics rules in the aftermath of a prominent state senator who went on trial in federal court last year for failing to disclose about $245,000 in payments from a grocery store chain he was working for while chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George's, was acquitted of all charges in the federal bribery case.
“This is actually -- I would say shockingly in this time -- pulling back ethics requirements,” Wichmann said. “It's actually rolling back ethics requirements that already exist in the law that were passed just two years ago, and the counties are just beginning to start to comply with.”
The panel of seven senators plans to introduce the proposal in legislation for lawmakers to take up this session.
The panel also has proposed legislation to post online financial disclosure forms of lawmakers and eventually thousands of Maryland government employees by July 2013. It's a significant change, because currently people who want to review financial disclosure forms must travel to the state ethics commission in Annapolis in person and present identification. Then, the lawmaker whose forms are viewed is generally notified.
The change would initially apply to legislators and state employees with cabinet-level positions. Thousands of other employees who deal with public policy would have their filings listed online by July 2015.