Gray area in political fund-raising Councilman's campaign to head national group reveals loophole in law.

July 10, 1996

ANY ELECTED OFFICIAL should undergo close scrutiny when soliciting money from the public. Maryland's election laws, though not as strong as they should be, help by requiring office-seekers to file campaign finance reports at regular intervals. These rules enable citizens to watch for connections between elected officials' decisions and the flow of donations to their campaigns. But an article last Sunday by Craig Timberg of the Howard County bureau of The Sun underscored a gaping loophole in state and local laws.

The story reported that Councilman C. Vernon Gray was trying to raise $35,000 for his campaign to become second vice-president of the National Organization of Counties. Election to that post that would put him in line in 1999 to head the non-profit trade group that represents county governments.

Unfortunately, state election laws do not require public officials to report money given to campaigns for private office. Howard County's ethics law also fails to provide clear guidance.

It seems that neither state or county laws have anticipated a scenario where an elected official finds it necessary to spend thousands of dollars to campaign for leadership in a national lobbying group. Yet candidates hoping to win election in this association must travel to state and regional conferences to drum up support. Politicians vying to become president of NACO in the past have reportedly spent more than $40,000 on their campaigns.

Howard County Council members should fine-tune the ethics law to provide clear guidelines on how to report this money. They should require elected officials seeking funds to run for private office to file a statement immediately and frequently report contributions.

One of Mr. Gray's contributors was Comcast Cablevision, which must go before the County Council for approval of its rate schedule. Even if such a vote is typically routine, Mr. Gray has been around long enough to know that accepting money, especially from those with issues before the council, gives the appearance of a conflict of interest. His leadership in NACO might bring some national prestige to Howard. But he should report contributions beyond what is required by law -- and erase any doubt about his integrity.

Pub Date: 7/10/96

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