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Maryland Senate to introduce ethics bill

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A special Senate panel charged with revamping the state's ethics laws is expected to introduce a bill this week detailing its recommendations.

Senate Special Committee on Ethics Reform Chairman Jamin B. Raskin said he will submit a bill before Friday that would make state lawmakers' financial disclosures available online and require thousands of other officials to file their disclosures electronically.

Mr. Raskin, Montgomery Democrat, said making officials' disclosures more readily available will increase transparency and make the public more involved and officials more accountable.

"If disclosure is going to be real, then we need to have a fully sunlit opportunity for inspection," he said. "If we can get this legislation through, we would be an ethical model" for the rest of the nation.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. appointed the seven-member committee last month, and its formation was owed heavily to the trial of Sen. Ulysses Currie, who was acquitted in November of charges that he took nearly $250,000 from a grocery chain in exchange for political influence.

Mr. Currie, Prince George's Democrat, reported the income on tax returns and insisted he was working as a legitimate consultant for the grocer but acknowledged he made an ethical misstep by not reporting his work to the State Ethics Commission.

The Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics will decide his fate this session and could recommend penalties ranging from reprimand to expulsion.

State ethics laws now require that lawmakers file annual forms disclosing any potential conflicts that they, a spouse or live-in child may have.

Potential conflicts include the lawmaker or a family member working for a state or local agency. Lawmakers also must disclose if they or immediate family members own more than $25,000 in stock or a 10 percent share of a corporation.

According to state law, people must visit Annapolis to examine state officials' disclosure records. They also must provide their names and addresses, which can later be accessed by officials.

Proponents for reform argue the current system restricts and even discourages public access.

"It's no good having them if the public doesn't have access to them," said Mr. Miller, Prince George's Democrat. "We want people to see what interests [lawmakers] have before actual votes are taken."

Mr. Raskin's bill would allow residents to freely access lawmakers' records online without providing personal information.

Supporters say the legislation would take Maryland from having a middling record of transparency compared to other states to having one of the most open ethics systems in the nation.

The bill would have to go through an additional Senate committee before reaching the chamber floor.

If passed into law, disclosures filed by state lawmakers, elected officials and cabinet heads would be posted online beginning in July 2013.

Other public officials would see their information go online in July 2015.

Mr. Raskin said he expects the bill to have strong support in the 47-member chamber, and that some House members have expressed interest in sponsoring or supporting the legislation.

Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, a member of the committee, said some that critics have expressed concerns about officials' family members having their information out in the open, but that response has been largely positive.

"I think we've worked through most of the issues," the Anne Arundel Republican said. "I'm confident we'll get something passed and, hopefully, lead the nation in ethics reform."

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