Money and Access Once More

June 25, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

Now comes Baltimore lawyer Lalit Gadhia to answer inquiries of federal authorities who wonder whether he broke laws controlling the way money is raised for political campaigns.

Mr. Gadhia follows lobbyist, Bruce C. Bereano, into the glare of prosecutorial attention.

Until his indictment and changes in state law curbed his activities, Bereano was Maryland's prime mover of fund-raiser tickets. He has appealed his conviction on mail fraud charges -- flowing from campaign fund-raising activities -- and remains active on the Maryland circuit of $15-to-$250 bull roasts, golf tournaments and bay cruises.

Mr. Gadhia was finance director for Gov. Parris N. Glendening and an ally of Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

With the Gadhia investigation coming so quickly after Bereano's conviction and sentencing, Marylanders get another chance to think about the role of money in their politics. Both cases involve men who were working hard to expand their influence.

"I think the system needs a drastic overhaul," says Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat. But House Speaker Casper R. Taylor says the current campaign finance laws are adequately clear and strict. Mr. Taylor recently collected $200,000 at a fund-raiser.

"Government has established an extensive network of laws and regulations. Until a better system is devised, we ought to defend that system against cynicism and against abuse," he said.

Mr. Taylor conceded that some politicians use campaign contributions to determine who gains access to them. In a barb apparently aimed at Governor Glendening, he said:

"If a leading statewide official is using his or her extraordinary ability to raise money as an ultimate litmus test for being included in that politician's world, I think that politician is to be condemned."

A spokesman said the governor declined to comment.

Mr. Taylor, regarded as a potential challenger to Mr. Glendening in the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary, said he cautiously approaches fund raising.

"I try to stay on my guard when I'm dealing in that process. Nobody's ever had to buy a ticket of mine to get access to me in the 21 years I've been in this business." That sort of behavior in politics, he said, is "despicable."

As for challenges to the system's integrity, he pointed out that Mr. Gadhia is under investigation, but he has not been charged with a crime. And he is not convinced that Bereano strayed. The lobbyist was convicted of defrauding his clients of $16,000, billing them for entertainment expenses while using the money to reimburse others for campaign contributions.

"I've got some serious doubts about how fundamentally evil that was," the speaker said.

The U.S. attorney charged that the lobbyist had laundered campaign contributions to obscure their real origin: Bruce Bereano.

Some questions

Each of these episodes raises questions.

Why would a giver want to obscure the origin of his gift? The point, after all, is to be recognized.

True, but if the contributor has already handed over the legal limit -- "maxed out," in political parlance -- he or she must put away the checkbook. For Maryland elections, no individual or corporation may give more than $4,000 to a single candidate in any four-year election cycle. No one may give more than $10,000 to all candidates combined during that period.

To go beyond these maximums, one must find other avenues. Bereano was charged with going to third parties who were not "maxed out": They wrote the checks. He reimbursed them.

A federal grand jury is investigating claims by more than a dozen people who say Mr. Gadhia or his nephew asked them to write large checks to an obscure New Mexico political action committee known as the Indian-American Leadership Fund. The contributors say the two men reimbursed them.

"I asked him why he (Mr. Gadhia) wanted me to do it, and he said it was some kind of technicality in the law that limited how much any one individual could give to a PAC," a Baltimore lawyer told The Sun.

Mr. Gadhia, an immigration lawyer from Bombay, and his nephew deny the allegetations.

The PAC donated the money to members of congressional committees that oversee foreign aid, trade and immigration matters.

The checks -- $34,900 in all -- were mailed to the PAC by MrGadhia's office, records show.

Limits on individual and corporate contributions were established as a way to guard against the accumulation of undue influence in elections or legislative councils. Even before Watergate, there were attempts to curtail fund-raising practices that, in effect, defeat democracy, the guarantee that everyone gets the same treatment, contributor or not.

Because political campaigns produce an infinite number of circumstances in which money is sought and given, writing laws to control the process has been difficult. Bereano, again, was charged with using funds provided to him by clients for expenses to reimburse his designated contributors.

Why would anyone do what these two men are accused of doing? Jobs? Power? Influence?

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