Fox Watches Henhouse

Bell Atlantic Official Chairs Powerful Committee That Regulates Bell Atlantic

One year after the expulsion of State Senator Larry Young and the: forced resignation of Delegate^ Gerald Curran, little has changed in the Maryland General Assembly. Although the legislature has passed new ethics legislation, based on the recommendations of a blue ribbon panel, the lines between private interests and public officials are so blurred as to be nonexistent.

Over a period of three weeks, The Baltimore Press has examined finan­cial disclosure filings of legislative leaders and Baltimore area Senators and Delegates. The filings reveal overwhelming conflicts of interest that are accepted as part of doing business in Annapolis. This series will describe some of those conflicts of interest, and it will conclude with ft listing of each Baltimore area leg­islator ’s publicly disclosed conflicts of interest.

In his public life, Delegate Ron Guns chairs a powerful legislative committee that has oversight of the State’s public utility industiy and its health care industry. In his private life, Guns is Assistant Manager of Public Relations for Bell Atlantic, Maryland, the giant utility that has a monopoly on residential phone ser­vice in most of Maryland. Last year, when the General Assembly enacted a sweeping recodification of laws governing public utility companies like Bell Atlantic, Guns chaired the committee that worked out the details of the new law. When the matter came for a vote on the floor, Guns, as chairman of the Committee on Environmental Matters, issued the favorable report and cast a “yes” vote. This year, Guns co-sponsored bills changing the law on Public Utility Holding Companies and a bill dealing with the funding, personnel and procurement of the Public Service Commission, the quasi-judi- cial agency that has authority over Bell Atlantic’s rate structure.

Until last year, Guns also served on the Board of Union Hospital in Elkton, a private facility that is directly affected by the actions of his committee, which has authori­ty over bills involving health care.

Guns has failed to respond to numerous inquiries by The Baltimore Press staff about conflicts.

Ethics Committee’s staff, said “because you need 71 votes [to pass a law], the law recognizes that for the body to function, members with conflicts of interest must be able to participate. It’s a member’s discre­tion on how far they can go.”

When contacted, Kathleen Skullney, regional director of interest. Guns’ employment by Bell Atlantic and his service as a member of the Board of Union Hospital were freely disclosed in his annual financial disclosure state­ments filed with the State Ethics Commission in Towson.

Once his conflict of interest was disclosed, Guns became free to participate and actually chair hearings involving his employer.

Neither the current ethics law, nor the new law enacted during this ses­sion forbid Guns from regulating the activities of his employer in the pri­vate sector. The new ethics law, passed amid the glare of publicity from last year’s controversies involving former Senator Larry Young and former Delegate Gerald Curran, will do nothing to prevent Guns from participating in decisions affecting his private sector employer. The new law was the outgrowth of the report of the legislature’s Special Study Commission on the Maiyland Public Ethics Law. Sherry Bellamy, Chief Executive Officer of Bell Atlantic, Maryland, was one of the commission’s members. Thus, Guns’.committee regulates his pri­vate sector employer, whose CEO helps to set ethical standards for Guns and his colleagues.

These seemingly glaring conflicts of interest raise few, if any, eyebrows in Annapolis. “In my opinion, there is no conflict of interest …” said House Speaker Casper Taylor. “More important is what the Joint Ethics Committee has to say. You should be speaking with the Joint Ethics Committee.” Bill Summerville, a member of the Joint Common Cause Maryland was not aware of Guns’ conflict of interest. “We haven’t followed this specifical­ly,” she said. “The public must understand the power a committee chair wields. He can kill any legisla­tion that comes before him. It is such conflicts that cause the level of cynicism in the Maryland public.” Dan Pontious, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, had no comment on Guns’ employment by Bell Atlantic.

The Baltimore Sun, which last year actively pursued stories about conflicts of interest involving former State Senator Larry Young and for­mer Delegate Gerald Curran, has had virtually nothing to say about Guns’ conflict. [Columnist Barry Rascovar did briefly mention Guns’ employ­ment in an editorial column years ago.]

Delegate Guns’ conflicts of inter­est do not end with his employment at Bell Atlantic or his involvement on a hospital’s board of directors. His wife, Linda L. Guns, is a full time employee of the Maryland Transportation Authority, the quasi­public authority that operates toll bridges, tunnels, and rest stops throughout Central Maryland. Since 1991, Mrs. Guns has worked as “Traveler Assistance Specialist” for the agency, giving routes and direc­tions to drivers. Her employment with the State Authority roughly coincides with the date of her hus­band’s elevation to his committee chairmanship.

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