The Maryland General Assembly has hired outside counsel to aid its ethics investigation of a state lawmaker who championed medical marijuana while having a business relationship with a prospective dispensary, a spokesman for the Senate president confirmed recently.
Related: Lawmaker scrutinized over Maryland medical marijuana ties removed from key panel
Senate President Thomas Mike Miller Jr. (D) said on the floor of the legislative body that the ethics committee had recently tapped an outside lawyer to help on a matter.
He told reporters afterward that he was referring to Del. Dan Morhaim (D), who came under scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics after The Washington Post reported he had been shaping medical marijuana regulations without disclosing to regulators or fellow lawmakers that he was consulting for a marijuana business.
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Bringing in an outside lawyer is “very, very unusual,” said Miller. according to The Baltimore Sun. “It means we take the case very seriously.”
Miller’s disclosure comes a day after Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced a package of ethics reform bills, saying that he didn’t want “a culture of corruption” to take root in Maryland.
One proposed bill would strengthen restrictions on lawmakers working on legislation that could benefit them financially, and a spokesman for Hogan said the Morhaim case accentuated the need for such legislation.
Tim Maloney, a lawyer representing Morhaim, said Miller revelation of the investigation into Morhaim was an overreaction to Hogan’s ethics push.
Maloney said he was informed about the use of an outside lawyer in the case two months ago, and was told it was because legislative ethics officials had a conflict because they had previously advised Morhaim on how to juggle his dual roles.
“We were repeatedly told, ‘Do not interpret us bringing outside counsel that this has anything to do with the gravity of the situation,'” said Maloney, adding that the investigation, and the hiring of outside counsel, was supposed to be confidential.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael Busch (D) declined to comment because of the confidentiality rules.
Maloney said Morhaim followed all disclosure rules after consulting with ethics staff, who told him he didn’t need to list which specific companies paid him for consulting. Morhaim disclosed that he received income from a consulting firm and that he “may” do work in the medical cannabis field.
Doctor’s Orders, the company with which Morhaim is affiliated, was one of several aspiring medical marijuana businesses to win preliminary licenses to open a growing operation, processing facility and dispensary.
Maloney said regulations that Morhaim had pushed for could actually hurt Doctor’s Orders, because they would allow more businesses to participate in the industry, increase competition and bar companies from selling their licenses.
Fenit Nirappil covers politics and government in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. He previously covered the California statehouse and suburban government outside Portland, Ore. Follow him on Twitter @FenitN.