Joseph A. De Francis, principal owner of Pimlico and Laurel racetracks and a leading proponent of legalizing slot machines in Maryland, was charged yesterday with making illegal campaign contributions to Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli charged De Francis in Baltimore District Court with disguising $12,000 in contributions by sending money to relatives in New York and having them send the checks to the Glendening-Townsend Committee in 1994.
Under state law, giving money to a political campaign under a false name -- the charge De Francis faces -- is illegal. State election law also limits to $4,000 the amount an individual can give to one political candidate -- or $8,000 to a gubernatorial slate, such as Glendening-Townsend.
While other Maryland political figures have been convicted under federal law of attempting to exceed campaign con-tribution limits, this is believed to be the first time a contributor has been charged under state law with giving money under a false name, Montanarelli said.
A conviction on the charge, a misdemeanor, carries a possible penalty of a $1,000 fine and a year in prison. A trial date has tentatively been set for Aug. 14.
Montanarelli said investigators found no evidence that "anyone on the Glendening-Townsend Committee -- or the candidates -- had any knowledge of the actual source of the contributions."
He said the investigation was the result of a tip.
Yesterday, Glendening said that he was "shocked" by the charge against De Francis and that he was directing his campaign treasurer to return the money.
"If the allegations are true, I am angry," the governor said in a prepared statement. "Such behavior is absolutely unacceptable. It violates my principles, is wrong and will not be tolerated."
De Francis issued a statement saying that he did not dispute the facts of the case, admitting that he reimbursed his grandmother, aunt and uncle -- who each contributed $4,000 -- for contributions made to the campaign.
But he defended his action, saying, "There was never any intention or attempt on my part to hide, disguise or otherwise conceal my reimbursement.
"I have cooperated fully with the state prosecutor's office, and while we are in agreement regarding the facts, I am disappointed that we disagree regarding the legal significance of those facts," he said.
The charge could hinder De Francis as he tries to line up support to legalize slot machines at state race tracks during the 1997 General Assembly session. In fact, some legislators yesterday were declaring the proposal "dead on arrival" in the wake of the charge.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who favors legalizing slots at the tracks and off-track betting parlors, was more circumspect about the possible effect of the charge.
"On the substance, it should not have any bearing on any significant issues down here, but given the perceptions these things create, it's hard to predict," Taylor said.
Dr. Allan C. Levey, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission Chairman and a proponent of slots, said, "I would hope that the slot machine issue will be decided on its own merits, and how it affects the economy of Maryland and the 20,000 people in the state who are employed by the industry."
It was unclear whether a conviction could affect De Francis' ability to own Pimlico and Laurel race courses.
"The only thing in the law that pertains specifically [to a criminal conviction] deals with changing ownership, but there's nothing that pertains to an instance like this," Levey said. "We certainly wouldn't do anything till after this case has run its course."
De Francis said in his statement that he held a fund-raiser for the campaign in October 1994, just before the general election. "In an attempt to make that fund-raiser a success, I asked my grandmother, aunt and uncle to contribute," he said. "Each of them made an independent decision to make his or her contribution. I believed, as I continue to believe, that my reimbursing them would not violate any law."
He reimbursed them by personal check, sent by Federal Express, he said.
A check of campaign files showed that the Glendening-Townsend campaign received $4,000 each from Sara R. Lascola, Marie L. Sanderson and R. C. Sanderson, all of Buffalo, N.Y. -- De Francis' grandmother, aunt and uncle.
A check of contributions to other 1994 gubernatorial candidates showed that Lascola and both Sandersons also gave $4,000 each to Helen Delich Bentley, who ran in the GOP primary for governor, on June 22 of that year.
A source close to the investigation said De Francis also provided the money for those contributions, but the two-year statute of limitations has expired.
De Francis also was a huge supporter of former Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg in the 1994 Democratic primary for governor. He, other track employees and family members contributed heavily to that campaign early on.