The trial of former Baltimore County Councilman Gary Huddles, scheduled for next month, ought to focus public attention on the weakness of the state election law, as well as on the General Assembly's apparent unwillingness to do anything to tighten up regulations.
Huddles, who represented the Pikesville-Randallstown area for 16 years, had aspirations to run for county executive. But his political career was cut short in 1985, when published reports revealed that he had gotten an unsecured $60,0000 loan four years earlier from the now-convicted president of Old Court Savings and Loan, Jeffrey Levitt. Huddles, however, still had some $90,000 left over in his campaign treasury. In 1987, Huddles "borrowed" $50,000 of it -- which he paid back in 1989. He is now charged under the state's theft laws, but Huddles is using the vagueness of the election law as a defense. That may be the one aspect of this case that is indisputable.
In fact, all the state's law really stipulates is that campaign money be used for campaign purposes. That, with a little creative bookkeeping, can be anything from taking a voter to dinner to buying an expensive, new campaign wardrobe. If that makes the law seem a pitiful excuse for oversight, blame the General Assembly itself. Lawmakers actually repealed a specific list of accepted uses of campaign money in 1976, and have rejected attempts to more clearly define the ethical parameters of the law ever since.
The outcome of the Huddles case aside, the controversy itself is a powerful argument for tightening up the loopholes in the state election law. As it exists now, the statute is an affront to accountability, allowing every politician to keep a private cash cow.