Cummings fund-raiser also raises questions Some see conflict in solicitation during legislative session

January 27, 1996|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Del. Elijah E. Cummings, one of five state legislators in the race for the 7th District congressional seat, raised nearly $50,000 yesterday during a fund-raising breakfast in Annapolis that was attended by business leaders and the top lobbyists in the state capital.

Mr. Cummings, whose $250-a-ticket event was sponsored by two of the most powerful committee chairmen in the House of Delegates, then returned to the State House to consider pending legislation important to those who attended, their businesses and clients.

If the West Baltimore Democrat were running for re-election as a delegate, his fund-raising efforts during the 90-day legislative session would have been prohibited by a 1988 ethics policy adopted by the General Assembly's presiding officers to eliminate the "perception of conflicts of interest and undue influence."

But since the 1994 session, the Senate president and House speaker have blessed such fund-raising activities for congressional, statewide and local races, including this year's March 5 primary races.

In a memo to members of both houses, the leaders said that candidates for such offices who are state legislators "would face distinct disadvantages if they were prohibited from fund raising" during the session.

While all five legislators who are among the 32-candidate field in the 7th District race have asked lobbyists and others for money -- so critical to a successful campaign -- Mr. Cummings' situation has another twist.

His event yesterday was sponsored by two longtime friends who also are members of the House leadership -- Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the West Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee, and Del. Michael E. Busch, the Anne Arundel Democrat who chairs the Economic Matters Committee.

Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause, the self-styled government watchdog group, said she believes such events "continue to raise the appearance of a conflict of interest when [candidates] raise money from those who want their votes."

The fund-raising letters from Mr. Rawlings and Mr. Busch that were sent to lobbyists and business leaders present larger concerns, Ms. Povich said.

"I think this becomes very questionable," Ms. Povich said. "This applies pressure on lobbyists who currently have issues before these powerful chairman and I think it's inappropriate that the chairmen are raising money during the session."

Mr. Cummings said he checked with House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who signed off on the idea.

"I looked at it very carefully to make sure no bounds were crossed," said Mr. Cummings, a lawyer. "Those lobbyists would have been there, no matter who had been the host."

Gerard E. Evans, a prominent Annapolis lobbyist who attended the breakfast, said: "Lobbyists have been approached with respect to every race by every congressional candidate down here. To be contacted by Elijah was not unexpected.

"These are not only colleagues, but friends," Mr. Evans said.

Mr. Taylor said he had no problem with fund-raising efforts for delegates who are running for congressional seats -- nor with the breakfast event for Mr. Cummings sponsored by Mr. Rawlings and Mr. Busch.

"The overriding consideration for me is that you cannot effectively run for federal office when the primary election is during our legislative session unless you have the ability to raise money," said Mr. Taylor, who attended the breakfast.

Asked if he believed it was a problem of "undue influence" for his committee chairmen to send a letter to lobbyists on behalf of a colleague, Mr. Taylor said: "I don't see it. I really don't."

Mr. Rawlings and Mr. Busch said there was no pressure on anyone to purchase tickets.

A co-chairman of the legislature's ethics committee, Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., is also a candidate for the 7th District. Mr. Montague, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat, said he had thought the waiver of the restriction on fund raising applied only to the candidates themselves.

"I don't think it contemplated that noncandidate members of the legislature would solicit funds on behalf of a candidate," Mr. Montague said, adding that he was speaking as a legislator, not as the ethics co-chairman.

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