Within recent months, two state legislators and a District of Columbia councilman have resigned after being accused of using public office for personal gain.
One, former Delegate Tawanna Gaines (D, Prince George’s County), has been sentenced for federal wire fraud. She used campaign funds for personal purposes. The other, Del. Cheryl Glenn (D, Baltimore City), has been charged with taking bribes for sponsoring legislation favorable to the medical cannabis industry. And DC Democratic Councilman Jack Evans used his office to gain consulting clients by supporting legislative actions advantageous to them. His colleagues resolved he should resign, and so he did.
Now let’s be clear: political office- holders are constantly helping constituents obtain government assistance in many matters of interest. That’s legal. That’s democracy. What’s illegal is expecting and extorting payment for these services.
I realize that some consider campaign contributions as legal bribery. I well understand that some justifiably bemoan the influence of big money in politics. However, for the sake of absolute clarity, I am referring only to explicit transfer of funds intended to influence a political action in a corrupt manner.
Some think that state legislators, now paid $50,000 for a 90-day session, plus incalculable time spent between sessions serving constituents and participating in legislative task forces, should receive greater compensation.
A member of the DC Council earns $140,000 annually.
How much is enough to avoid being susceptible to extortion?
Not too many years ago, a state delegate, Dan Morhaim (D, Baltimore County), who also was a physician, was found also to be a consultant paid by a company seeking a medical marijuana license. He had pushed for years to legalize medical use of marijuana. His peers reprimanded him. Shortly thereafter, he retired.
Some think that those accused of proffering bribes be fined $100,000.
Some believe that public officials found engaged in illegal behavior be charged with civil actions.
And some may take a different tack: corruption can’t be curbed. The human condition will never change; temptation is too great to resist. Corruption is unavoidable despite well-intended attempts to control behavior. Deterrence may be the best you can accomplish.
Back on my high horse (the same one I climbed on last week, if you recall). The 441st Maryland General Assembly convened on Wednesday, Jan.8,2020. Though it may not supersede the importance of education funding, ethics should be a primary subject.
A.K. Antony, a former defense minister of India and current member of Parliament, said.” There is no compromise when it comes to corruption. You have to fight it.”
What’s blindingly obvious is that trust in government Is sadly low. Politicians general receive low marks from the public. Cynicism grows like a contagion. Consequently, decisions made by our elected officials are viewed suspiciously by the public: was the legislation necessary, and who influenced it?
The public has become jaded. It believes that its elected representatives—local, state and federal—are out only for themselves, beholden to special interest groups with deep pockets. Access is available only to the wealthy and powerful—a common perception.
I ascribe honesty and good intentions to our politicians before I am persuaded otherwise. I’ve worked with excellent legislators on all levels.
I hope and trust that the Maryland legislature will work to eliminate the stench of unethical and illegal behavior. It should institute severe penalties to ensure that delegates and senator understand the career-ending consequences of accepting bribes by selling their offices to the highest bidder.
Annapolis should be the citadel of honest competence, not pervasive corruption. No sleight of hand. No graft. No culture of play to pay. No special favors.
Here’s to a legislative session that declares a moratorium on political corruption, that resolves to serve its shareholders by taking steps to encourage behavior free of illegal entanglements.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.