Use of funds under scrutiny Vague law on use of campaign funds keeps elected officials guessing.

December 12, 1991|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Evening Sun Staff

If it's legal for former Baltimore County Councilman Gary Huddles to use $50,000 of his political campaign committee's money to salvage a personal stock market investment, then why is Anthony J. Cicoria, a former Prince George's councilman, serving five years in prison for taking $64,000 from his campaign?

The legal reason is that Huddles only borrowed the money and repaid it before the state prosecutor got the case. Cicoria, on the other hand, didn't pay his committee back before trial, and the Court of Special Appeals recently upheld his conviction.

A similar case now open involves Del. Tony E. Fulton, D-City, whose trial on campaign finance violations -- including charges that he pocketed $3,000 in election funds -- is scheduled to start in April.

Del. John J. Bishop, for one, hopes his colleagues are keeping track as a handful of elected officials get in, and sometimes out of trouble, as they skirt the edges of Maryland's deliberately vague campaign finance laws.

The Baltimore County Republican is planning another try, his fourth, to get a reform bill passed in 1992 to make clear what candidates can and can't do with campaign funds. Bishop thinks the publicity surrounding the Huddles and Cicoria trials may provide some impetus for change, although others aren't so sure.

Bishop's proposal would render illegal any personal use of campaign funds and ban loans of campaign money to candidates or businesses they control. It also would provide a core list of approved uses for campaign money.

Although recent court decisions have adding some focus to the blurry lines in Maryland's current law, the statute is deliberately vague. In fact, lawmakers removed a list of approved uses of campaign money from the law a decade ago, relying on disclosure of who contributes money and how it is spent as the public's protection.

As a result, many politicians now say they use a rule of thumb in deciding what is and is not a legitimate campaign expense: if you'd be embarrassed to read about your actions in a newspaper, then don't do it.

Gary Huddles, for example, claimed that, although he delayed reporting the $50,000 in loans for months by failing to file required campaign finance forms on time, he did finally disclose the loans, and the repayments, in an August, 1990 report.

Huddles borrowed campaign money left in a fund-raiser account after he decided not to run for public office in 1986. The stock market dive of October 1987 threatened to wipe out a $109,000 investment, and he needed money to meet margin calls.

He borrowed it from his campaign fund and paid it back by 1989. Then he distributed the money in the fund to charity or returned it to contributors.

Charges that Huddles stole the money were thrown out of court last month at the conclusion of the state prosecutor's case. State election laws, the former councilman argued, do not prohibit candidates from borrowing campaign money for personal use.

In the Prince Georges's case, Cicoria argued that, once the money was contributed to his campaign, it was virtually his, and he could not be found guilty of stealing from himself.

In Cicoria's Circuit Court conviction, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled Nov. 29 that a candidate's campaign money does not belong to him, but to his campaign committee. The court said a candidate can be prosecuted under state theft laws for using campaign money for personal expenses.

That's exactly how assistant state prosecutor Scott Nevin tried to nail Huddles. But he failed because Huddles had already repaid the fund and disbursed it according to law.

After Huddles was found not guilty, state prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said that he would like to see an election law with more definition to it. "It would make our jobs easier," he said.

Ironically, Huddles said he, too, feels that the law may need review by the General Assembly to make it less ambiguous.

Del. Anne S. Perkins, D-City, chairwoman of the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, which handles election law revisions, said the legislative leadership has not had campaign finance reform at the top of its priority list in recent years.

"I would prefer to have it [the law] clearer," she said, but noted that Bishop's type of bill would be "difficult to pass without strong leadership support."

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