Campaign reform groups advocate limits to out-of-state individual donations

April 01, 1991|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- He might be head of the Maryland Democratic Party, but Nathan Landow likes to help fellow Democrats far from the state's borders.

Mr. Landow and three other family members donated $10,500 -- mostly in $1,000 checks -- to candidates outside Maryland during the past two years, including contributions to Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., andSen. Albert Gore, D-Tenn., according to Federal Election Commission records.

Meanwhile, Diana MacArthur, chairman of Dynamac Corp., a Rockville-based consulting and engineering company, spent $7,225 in out-of-state donations.

But those contributions pale in comparison with donations made by Bethesda lobbyist Denis M. Neill and his wife, who gave nearly $82,000 to dozens of congressmen and senators from California to New Jersey duringthe past two years, according to the FEC.

Such large donations would be sharply curtailed under campaign finance reform legislation being considered in Congress amid growing concern about the influence of wealthy out-of-state contributors in congressional campaigns.

Campaign reform advocates note that public attention has been riveted on the thousands of dollars funneled into campaigns by political action committees. But there has beenlittle attention paid to the spending power of wealthy individuals and families, even though their donations make up the bulk of campaign spending and play an active role in the campaigns of Maryland lawmakers. Large contributors -- those whose donations exceed $200 and must be listed on campaign finance reports -- contributed 48 percent of all money raised by congressional candidates between 1987 and 1988, according to a study by Citizen Action, a campaign reform group. PACscontributed 30 percent, the group found.

Montgomery County was among the top areas in the nation for large donor campaign contributions, with as much as 89 percent of its donors' money targeted for congressional races outside the state, the study said.

Citizen Action found that large donors are often associated with special interests, particularly business. Unlike PACs, they are not required to register with the FEC.

Although individual donations are limited to $1,000 for each election and a total of $25,000 each year, families often skirt the provision by donating in the names of children and other family members, according to the study.

Large out-of-state donations also show up in the campaign war chests of the Maryland congressional delegation, with the state's two senators collecting the majority of individual donations above $500 from outside Maryland.

The 1986 campaign of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., picked up $293,608 from outside the state and $202,794 from Maryland donors, according to FEC records. The 1988 re-election campaign of Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., pulled in $294,509 from individuals in other states and $185,145 from his constituents.

Of the $84,978 in individual donations collected in November by Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, $21,925 came from outside the state. The FEC reported that her contributions included 13 checks for $1,000 each, many from business executives in the oil and marine industry.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th, collected $67,665 in individual contributions in October and November, with $17,000 from outside Maryland. Most of this money was in $1,000 checks from lawyers and consultants, FEC records show.

Ms. Mikulski has scheduled a fund-raising trip to Arizona and California this week with events sponsored by law firms, Asian-American groups and other supporters. She is expected to pick up $10,000 to $20,000 in individual contributions at each event, according to the senator's office.

"It's a growing phenomenon," said Michael Podhorzer of Citizen Action. "It's essentially the same as a PAC contribution, but there's no PAC."

"People think that PACs are bad and individuals are good, but it ain't that way," said Larry Makinson of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit research group that studies Congress and is investigating large individual contributions. "There's a tendency for people to think if you get rid of PACs, you get rid of the problem."

"The higher the [individual donation] limit, the easier it is to get large amounts of money to people you want to influence," Mr. Makinson said.

Mr. Landow brushed aside such talk, saying that individuals and families have a "civic obligation" to donate to candidates. Since lawmakers deal with questions that are "national in scope," contributions from out-of-state donors should not be curtailed.

FTC "I don't think it's a good idea to limit [individual donations]," he added. "I agree with limitations on PACs." He doubted that any such contributions from families could be equated with PACs and said his own relationship with the candidates is "personal."

"Those I like and believe in, I support," he said.

Ms. MacArthur said she donates to politicians, primarily Democrats, "because I admire them."

"I think $1,000 is just a fine upper limit," she said.

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