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Politics

Nation, Community, Family and Friends Mourn Paul Sarbanes

BALTIMORE, MD – Former U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes – who championed the enforcement of an arms embargo against Turkey after its illegal invasion of Cyprus in 1974 – a staunch defender Greece and Cyprus throughout his distinguished public service career, died Sunday. He was also a champion of Chesapeake Bay and cosponsor of far-reaching eponymous legislation that reformed federal securities laws after high-profile financial scandals near the turn of the century. 

The first senator of Greek-American heritage, he frequently supported Greece, saying that the United States was unduly friendly to its antagonist Turkey.

His death was announced by his son, U.S. Rep John Sarbanes (D-MD) and the family plans a private service, following COVID-19 health guidance, in the coming days, the younger Sarbanes' office said Sunday night.

“My father, Senator Paul S. Sarbanes, passed away peacefully this evening in Baltimore. Our family is grateful to know that we have the support of Marylanders who meant so much to him and whom he was honored to serve,” the Congressman said in a brief public statement.

Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis expressed his condolences for the loss of Paul Sarbanes in a post on Twitter: "Senator Paul Sarbanes was a towering figure in U.S. politics and a strong advocate of Greek issues, for which Greece will always be grateful. He will be greatly missed. My sincere condolences to@ RepSarbanes and his family.”

U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform and founder and Co-Chair of the House Caucus on Hellenic Issues, released the following statement on the passing of Greek-American Senator Paul Sarbanes:

“Yesterday, our country lost an iconic legislator and leader. Senator Paul Sarbanes dedicated his career to bettering the lives of all Marylanders and Americans with his remarkable vision and consistent message of unity. I and so many others are lucky to have called Sen. Sarbanes a friend and colleague. He was a champion for Greece and Cyprus, and it was my honor to work with him to further the Greek-American relationship, as well as on financial services issues. The transformational Sarbanes-Oxley Act reshaped corporate oversight and has helped to protect hardworking Americans and prevent fraud for nearly two decades. The countless lives he shaped and the legislation he helped pass will undoubtedly be felt throughout our country for generations to come, especially as we begin the 117th Congress.”

The Senator was born Paul Spyros Sarbanes in Salisbury, MD on Feb. 3, 1933, to Greek immigrant parents, Matina (née Tsigounis) and Spyros P. Sarbanes, who had emigrated from Laconia, Greece and owned a Salisbury restaurant.

At Princeton University he was graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude in 1954. “Mr. Sarbanes studied at the University of Oxford before graduating from Harvard Law School in 1960. He then returned to Maryland, where he was a law clerk to Judge Morris A. Soper on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit,” the Washington Post noted in an article written by Bart Barnes.

Few words can be said about the life of Senator Sarbanes before the conversation turns to the love of his life. “From 1960 until she died in 2009,” Barnes writes, “Mr. Sarbanes was married to the former Christine Dunbar, a teacher of Latin and Greek. In addition to his son, who was elected to the U.S. House in 2006, Mr. Sarbanes leaves a daughter, Janet, and another son, Michael. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.”

A member of the Democratic Party from Maryland, he served as a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1971 to 1977 and as a United States Senator from 1977 to 2007. Sarbanes was the longest-serving senator in Maryland history until he was surpassed by Barbara Mikulski by a single day when her term ended on January 3, 2017.

In June 1960, Sarbanes married Christine Dunbar of Brighton, England; they had three children (John Sarbanes, Michael Anthony Sarbanes, and Janet Matina Sarbanes) and seven grandchildren. Christine Sarbanes died of cancer on March 22, 2009. Sarbanes held the highest lay honor in the Greek Orthodox Church, Order of St. Andrew, Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and was a member of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore.

His son, John Sarbanes, won the general election for Maryland's 3rd congressional district in 2006, the district that Paul Sarbanes represented prior to his election as senator.

Barnes wrote that Sarbanes, “as a young Maryland congressman on the House Judiciary Committee drafted and introduced the first article of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon,” who resigned less than two weeks after the Committee’s vote to impeach. “As a five-term U.S. senator he tightened the regulation of corporate accounting practices after corruption scandals at Enron and other businesses,” Barnes added.

“Unlike many of his contemporary officeholders,” the Post article noted, “Mr. Sarbanes was uncomfortable with the backslapping, glad-handing and grandstanding that often go with public office. He avoided the social and party circuit in the nation’s capital and rarely spent a night in Washington, preferring instead to drive home to his wife and children in Baltimore.”

“Sometimes described as a ‘phantom senator,’ Barnes writes, “he often shunned even perfunctory self-promotion tactics such as issuing news releases and holding news conferences.”

He told The Washington Post in 1994 that he was a “different sort of politician. I’m not always out there blowing my own trumpet … “You can get a lot done if you let others take some, maybe all, of the credit for it.”

“He was widely recognized for a superb intellect and a quick and nimble mind, but he had ‘an odd lack of sparkle for one so brilliant,’ journalist Peter A. Jay once wrote in the Baltimore Sun,” according to Barnes, who added “what he lacked in charisma, however, he made up for in tenacity … Colleagues in the Senate thought of him as someone who studied hard and was thoroughly prepared.”

Filling out the inspiring biography, Barnes writes: “The son of Greek immigrants, Mr. Sarbanes began his working career busing tables and washing dishes at his parents’ restaurant on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He attended Princeton University on scholarship, studied in England on a Rhodes scholarship and graduated from Harvard Law School before embarking on a career in Democratic politics.”

“During his years in Congress Mr. Sarbanes was known for backing liberal legislation, including measures to promote low-income housing, environmental protection and preservation, investor protection and consumer privacy. He opposed busing programs for racial balance in public schools … Mr. Sarbanes helped shape legislation affecting Social Security, tax policy and campaign financing. He did not write or introduce many bills, arguing instead that the important work of Congress is done in the negotiating that takes place in the committees and subcommittees. He was adept at the unglamorous tasks of drafting and redrafting amendments and details that could draw bipartisan support for the measures he backed.”

Nevertheless, Sarbanes who won a Senate seat in 1976 and chaired the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs from 2001 to 2003, as Chairman “wrote with Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio) the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was intended to ensure that publicly held businesses disclose to potential investors an accurate and complete portrayal of their financial condition,” according to the Post.

Barnes writes that “in February 2008, while in Norfolk to receive an award from the Economics Club of Hampton Roads, Mr. Sarbanes recalled how false and misleading corporate profit-and-loss statements had damaged the economy in the years immediately preceding Sarbanes-Oxley … Lots of people lost their jobs … People’s retirements were severely affected, so there are very real consequences from not doing things the right way.”

The article noted that “the Sarbanes-Oxley law gave prosecutors new tools to enforce laws against business executives who mislead and defraud investors, and it was among the most far-reaching legislation regarding securities since the Great Depression.”

“He’s a thinker, a clear and thorough thinker,” Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) told The Post in 1988, which noted that “throughout his years in the Senate, Mr. Sarbanes maintained a close relationship with Byrd, a former Senate majority leader, which was said to have been among the sources of his influence on Capitol Hill.”

The Post concluded the article by noting that while “Paul Sarbanes was never considered a colorful yarn-spinner … there was one story he loved to tell about his years at Princeton – the time he shushed Albert Einstein. He was a freshman in 1950, catching a catnap in his dormitory between classes, when loud voices outside woke him. ‘Quiet out there!’ he shouted to no avail. The noise continued, and the sleepy future senator went to an open window to confront the transgressors, only to find himself face-to-face with the world’s most famous scientist, who was leading visitors on a tour of the campus. There was no exchange of harsh words. Einstein and the group moved on, and the Princeton freshman resumed his nap.”

(Material from the Washington Post was used in this article)

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