- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2012

A new ethics law will require state lawmakers next year to post certain disclosure forms online, but it won’t do nearly as much as the law’s sponsors originally intended.

The General Assembly passed a bill this year that will allow public online access to forms on which legislators and their spouses detail potential conflicts of interest and places of work.

However, there will be no online posting of financial disclosures. House lawmakers stripped that requirement out of the bill largely because of privacy concerns. Lawmakers also removed language that would have required online disclosure by executive branch and county officials.

The bill’s supporters say it is still a strong step in the right direction, as the public has long had to visit Annapolis to view any of the records in person.

Some lawmakers say the bill is an unfinished product that was rushed and will require heavy revision in the future.

“I think we need to go back to the drawing board and work on it between now and the next session,” said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, Harford Republican, who would have preferred to wait for consensus on a wider-ranging law. “This is what happens when you push something through without time for it to be fully vetted.”

The bill was crafted largely in response to ethics violations by Sen. Ulysses Currie, who was acquitted last year on bribery charges after he received nearly $250,000 from Lanham-based Shoppers Food Warehouse for work that often included representing the grocery chain in front of state officials.

Mr. Currie, Prince George’s Democrat, escaped conviction by arguing that his failure to disclose the income on ethics forms was an honest mistake. He was censured by the Senate in February.

A Senate panel set out to propose legislation that would give the public better access to such oversights and make officials more cognizant of the need for ethics disclosures.

The Senate passed a bill largely in line with the panel’s wishes, but House members worried that making some information available online — such as stock holdings and debts — could potentially open the door for identity theft.

Both chambers eventually approved a bill keeping detailed financial information off the Internet. Lawmakers still must file the forms, but the only way to see financial disclosures will continue to be visiting the State Ethics Commission’s Annapolis office.Visitors must provide their names to access the records, and officials have the right to know everyone who has accessed their file.

Ms. Jacobs argues the bill was hurried through by lawmakers who were desperate to send a message about the scandal involving Mr. Currie.

But Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, who sponsored the bill, said it was carefully thought through and is “a big step forward” for the state.

Mr. Raskin, Montgomery Democrat, acknowledged its shortfalls but said he expects the law to be expanded in the future to include more records and cover more levels of government.

“The core of the bill is still there,” he said. “The balance that we’re striking is between the public’s right to have basic access to information about their elected officials with the privacy of legislative officials not to have sensitive personal information put online.”

The legislation establishes a work group to consider improvements to the law. The group will consist of lawmakers, local officials and other interested parties, but no members have been named to it.

The group also must approve a new disclosure form where lawmakers will list their places of employment other than their part-time legislative jobs.

The process already has run into a snag. The Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, a standing committee of the legislature, determined this week that a line on the form asking legislators to list their “primary” place of employment is too vague and could cause some people to omit multiple jobs where they receive significant income.

Committee members hope the work group will correct and finalize the form this fall. The group is expected to report its findings by the end of the year.

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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