Runyon gifts in question

March 06, 1995|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

The Baltimore ambulance company owner who was the largest contributor to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's legal defense fund apparently violated Maryland election law by exceeding state limits on campaign contributions.

Willie Runyon donated at least $16,000 to various candidates in last year's elections, and his company, American Ambulance and Oxygen Service Co., gave another $16,000, campaign finance reports show.

The amount of those contributions appears to put him and his company in violation of state election law -- which caps at $10,000 the total an individual or company can spend on all election races in a four-year cycle. The most recent cycle ended Dec. 31.

Mr. Runyon did not appear to violate the $4,000 limit on how much may be given to a single candidate. But he and the company, in effect, gave money to too many candidates or gave too much money to each.

The campaign contributions were unrelated to the $95,000 that Mr. Runyon, his daughter and his ambulance company together donated to offset the governor's legal bills stemming from the general election challenge by defeated Republican candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey. Those contributions, which Mr. Glendening initially refused to disclose, are not covered by state election law.

A review of campaign finance reports for the primary and general elections, on file with the state election board in Annapolis, showed that Mr. Runyon and his company each contributed:

* $8,000 to the Glendening/Townsend campaign committee for Mr. Glendening and his running mate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend;

* $4,000 to former Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, who lost the Democratic primary for governor; and

* $4,000 to state Sen. Larry Young, an employee of Mr. Runyon's ambulance company who ran for re-election last year.

While the law limits contributions to $4,000 per campaign, the governor's race is an exception, according to an attorney general's opinion. The opinion states that $4,000 can be contributed to the governor and another $4,000 to the lieutenant governor -- a total of $8,000 for the ticket -- because they are considered individual candidates, though running on a slate.

Mr. Runyon, 71, long a big money-raiser for Democratic candidates on the national, state and local levels, has been unavailable for comment since Friday. But in an earlier interview, he said he did not believe there was an overall $10,000 limit for an election cycle.

An attorney for Mr. Runyon, George L. Russell Jr., said he could not comment until he had a chance to review the matter and speak with his client.

Assistant Attorney General Jack Schwartz, counsel for opinions and advice, declined to comment specifically on Mr. Runyon's situation, but did say the $10,000 limit is clear.

"The law is rather straightforward," Mr. Schwartz said. "It creates a four-year election cycle from 1991 to the end of 1994, and says an individual may not contribute any more than $4,000 to any one candidate or committee and not more than $10,000 total during that cycle."

Mr. Schwartz said the responsibility of complying with the limits belongs to the contributor, "not with the candidate."

He said allegations that an individual or company has violated the election code could result in a criminal investigation. "That's the state prosecutor's bailiwick," Mr. Schwartz said.

Stephen Montanarelli, the state prosecutor, declined to comment specifically on any possible violation of law. Mr. Montanarelli said his office would investigate allegations of election law violations and prosecute them, depending on its findings.

Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, a group that monitors campaign financing, confirmed Friday that last week she asked Mr. Montanarelli to investigate contributions by Mr. Runyon and his company.

"This shows a need for monitoring for compliance with the campaign finance law, and the best way to do that is to computerize the information," Ms. Povich said. "Unfortunately, members of the General Assembly just killed the bill that would have required the board of election to computerize the records."

In addition to the $95,000 Mr. Runyon, his daughter, Marjorie Boyer, and his ambulance company donated to Mr. Glendening's legal defense fund, and the $16,000 for the Glendening-Townsend election effort, Mr. Runyon gave at least another $15,000 -- in Mr. Young's name -- to finance the governor's inaugural festivities in January.

Mr. Young, chairman of a new health subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee and of the Senate panel that votes on the governor's appointments, also was a beneficiary of Mr. Runyon's largess.

An Aug. 16 report of the Committee to Re-elect Larry Young '94 lists at least 20 contributions from Mr. Runyon, his companies, relatives or companies they run, for a total of at least $47,600. Included is the $4,000 Mr. Runyon gave to Mr. Young's campaign and the $4,000 given by his ambulance company.

Since 1991, Mr. Young has been on Mr. Runyon's payroll as an executive assistant handling marketing, public relations and community relations. The ambulance company is under federal investigation for possible irregularities in Medicare billings, Mr. Runyon confirmed last month.

Denying any wrongdoing, he said the inspector general's office of the Department of Health and Human Services asked for his records on reimbursements for ambulance service and that he turned over copies of the files in October, after receiving administrative subpoenas from the agency, which oversees Medicare.

The federal inspector general's review of Mr. Runyon's records apparently is part of "Project Wheels of Fortune," a national anti-fraud program examining Medicare's reimbursement for transporting kidney dialysis patients by ambulance.

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