Fund raising tests reach of ethics law Gray seeks donations to his campaign for lobbying group office

$1,000 sought from firms

Don't have to report donations to state, contributors are told

July 07, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

In his campaign for a top position with a powerful national lobbying group, Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray is soliciting $1,000 donations from dozens of state and national companies -- a move that tests the limits of the county's ethics law.

In letters signed by corporate supporters and obtained by The Sun, Gray has sought money from about 50 companies, assuring each that the contributions need not be reported under state election laws.

Among the $1,000 donors, according to Gray, is Comcast Cablevision, the county's largest cable provider with 52,000 subscribers.

Monday night -- less than two weeks after sending a letter thanking Comcast for its support -- Gray voted with the majority to approve a new rate schedule for the cable company.

Gray also has sought $100 donations from about 20 black business leaders around the country. The fund-raising effort is intended to cover travel, lodging and meal expenses for Gray, his wife and two campaign volunteers as he runs for second vice president of the National Association of Counties (NACO).

If elected, he would be virtually assured of ascending to the group's presidency by 1999.

The east Columbia Democrat last month mailed the fund-raising letters and at least 1,600 other pieces of campaign literature, using county staff, envelopes and more than $500 in postage -- reigniting a battle with council Republicans over his use of county resources.

But the fund-raising letters themselves present a potentially serious issue under the county's ethics law. The ethics law prohibits county officials from soliciting money aside from campaign contributions that are regulated by state or local rules on their amount, source and disclosure.

"Public officials cannot solicit gifts. Period," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland.

"It creates an appearance of conflict of interest when an elected official solicits and accepts gifts from businesses doing business with the county or regulated by the county."

But Gray says letters from the Maryland attorney general's office and the Howard County Office of Law convinced him that he could seek contributions because his run for NACO is a campaign of sorts -- though not for a public office.

"I'm not soliciting gifts. I'm soliciting campaign contributions," Gray said of his NACO fund raising. "It's not whether it's right or wrong. We have to go on whether it's legal or illegal."

The one restriction, he said, is that he has to disclose contributions from companies that do business with the county or are regulated by the county.

He plans to disclose contributions from such companies, including Comcast, on his annual financial disclosure form this year.

Such disclosures are more limited than disclosures required by state election law in campaigns for public office.

Under the election law, a candidate must list all large donations, regardless of a donor's relationship with the county.

John E. O'Donnell, director of the state Ethics Commission, said that although he could not comment on Gray's situation, the state election law and local ethics laws are intended to work in tandem in regulating anything of value given to public officials.

The state election laws regulate campaign contributions by dictating limits and requiring disclosure, he said.

Local ethics laws regulate other gifts by prohibiting solicitation and requiring certain types of disclosure.

The only exceptions are for gifts to the government generally -- not to particular officials.

"The laws are designed to be seamless. It's either a campaign contribution or a gift," O'Donnell said.

"There is no in-between in the state law, and there isn't supposed to be in the local law."

The county Ethics Commission has the final word on the county's ethics law.

Chairman Russell Gled-hill said he was not familiar with Gray's situation and planned to review both the fund-raising and expense issues.

But the county attorney who advises the Ethics Commission said that while a "strict reading" of the ethics law prohibits soliciting gifts, a broader interpretation might exempt a situation like Gray's, in which he is seeking a private office in his capacity as a public official.

"I think the law needs to be applied on a rational basis," said Senior Assistant County Solicitor Lonnie Robbins.

"I can see some reason to have this particular kind of gift permissible, with reporting requirements."

Gray's main fund-raising letter was signed by Donald Wood, an executive with NationsBank in Anne Arundel County, and R. Chad Dreier, president and chief executive of the Ryland Group in Columbia.

NationsBank has several branches in Howard County. Ryland is one of the nation's largest homebuilders and frequently seeks variances for its projects in Howard County.

"Your contribution of $1,000 made payable to the GRAY NACO CAMPAIGN will be very much appreciated by Vernon and his supporters," says the letter to 50 U.S. companies.

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