11:58 AM AKST, December 6, 2012
Will Rogers once observed that a newspaper ad was worth about 40 editorials, which many of us in the opinion writing side of that equation suspect would be quite the bargain. Little else could explain the public's indifference to a topic that has launched countless editorials in recent years — the prosecution of political corruption in this state and the need for reform.
So it provides some relief to hear someone in the public eye "gets it" and, like those ink-stained wretches banging out opinions from here to Salisbury, Rockville or Cumberland, recognizes that Maryland's reputation in the political arena is something less than sterling. That someone is Prince George's Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr., whose 34-page ruling, issued Wednesday, raised the likelihood that the county will be represented by one fewer person who has been charged with or convicted of a serious criminal offense.
Judge Nichols denied Tiffany Alston the opportunity to regain her seat in the House of Delegates after being removed from office in October when she was convicted of misconduct. Technically, that conviction was set aside when she was sentenced to probation before judgment, but the judge was having none of her arguments that she merited reinstatement because the conviction was no longer on the books.
He also ruled that the man first nominated by the Prince George's County Democratic Central Committee to fill her seat did not necessarily have a right to her job either. The nomination of Gregory Hall, a former drug dealer who was convicted of a gun charge in the early 1990s in connection with the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old, caused Gov. Martin O'Malley to balk and, once the committee was made fully aware of his background, caused those who selected him to have a change of heart as well.
Mr. Hall may well be fully reformed, as he and his supporters insist. He might even make an excellent delegate. But must Ms. Alston, who took $800 from the General Assembly to pay for expenses in her private law office (as well as stealing from friends and campaign supporters), be replaced by a former drug dealer? Surely, there's at least a problem in appearances, as Mr. O'Malley — who is doubtless keenly aware of how all this might look in an attack ad if he runs for higher office — was the first to notice. Thanks to Judge Nichols, the committee now has an opportunity to withdraw the nomination and come up with another, or the governor may simply choose someone else.
But one more thing was notable about Judge Nichols' ruling: It didn't take place in a vacuum. He recognized that the image of the state and county are tarnished by political corruption. The "circumstances of this case do little for the good name and reputation of our state and even less for our county," he wrote in the first line of his opinion.
Hear, hear. Why is that so difficult a concept for others to grasp? Have Maryland politicians lost any sense of shame?
Last month, voters had to approve Question 3 (as they did overwhelmingly) to clarify that elected officials must forfeit office upon being found guilty, and not at sentencing. The vote was necessary because of a chronic lack of shame among those convicted of crimes in office. Former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon wouldn't leave office after she was found guilty. Anne Arundel County Councilman Daryl Jones was convicted of tax evasion but wanted to hold onto his seat while in prison. Having served his time, he's recently been angling to be reinstated. And let's not forget Prince George's County Councilwoman Leslie Johnson, the wife of corrupt former county executive Jack Johnson, who tried to hold onto office even after pleading guilty in connection with his pay-to-play schemes.
Marylanders don't have to go back decades into the historical record to conjure names of corrupt politicians like Marvin Mandel, Spiro Agnew or Dale Anderson. The courts, state and federal, have been plenty busy trying cases just in the past several years. Given the track record, one might expect the General Assembly and local governments from Upper Marlboro to Baltimore to be busy passing anti-corruption laws to add transparency, strengthen open meetings and public record laws, regulate campaign finance abuse or otherwise promote ethics and address conflicts of interest. With a few modest exceptions, one would be mistaken.
Until elected officials start to feel a lot more embarrassment about the state's track record with political corruption (or voters rev up their own sense of outrage), not much is going to change. Maryland's campaign finance laws have at least two dozen loopholes, according to a report written two years ago and largely ignored. Our leaders don't have to be saints, but is it too much to ask them to be a bit less scandalous?