Shocked -- shocked! -- by that money

July 14, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

"HOW COULD JOE be so dumb?'' is the question politicians are asking.

They're talking about Joseph A. De Francis, who owns Pimlico and Laurel racetracks and broke state election law. He pumped $12,000 into the 1994 Glendening for Governor general election drive via three relatives in Buffalo, N.Y, and another $12,000 into the Bentley-for-governor primary election effort the same way.

You can't ''make a payment . . . in any other name'' than your own. Mr. De Francis did it this way because otherwise he would have topped the $10,000 limit he could personally give to candidates in the 1994 election.

Notice the focus of discussion among politicos is not why Mr. De Francis did it, but how in the world he left such a clear trail of evidence for the state prosecutor.

That's a sad commentary on the current state of fund-raising and enforcement of campaign laws. Mr. De Francis' action isn't unique. Every candidate encourages similar ploys. Only in Mr. De Francis' case he doesn't have a wife and kids. So Mrs. Joe De Francis can't ''give'' $10,000 to candidates, and little Joey Jr. and Joanne -- both in diapers -- can't ''give'' $10,000 each.

A married Joe De Francis wouldn't have used Buffalo relatives as proxies. He legally could have had his immediate family members make the donations without fear of ''maxing out'' himself. That's what big-time political givers do. The 1994 Glendening-for-governor contributor list is replete with examples.

It's not a new trend. Mr. De Francis could just as easily have used Pimlico workers as proxies. Plenty of businessmen do that. They just don't get caught. (Though one of Bob Dole's big national fund-raisers pleaded guilty last week, resulting in whopping fines of $6 million.)

The real culprit

State Republicans were quick to accuse Parris Glendening of being the real culprit because of the heavy pressure he puts on business leaders to give, give, give. The GOP is both right and wrong.

Blaming the governor for the De Francis violation not only is hypocritical, it's groundless. Mr. Glendening had no more inkling of what Mr. De Francis was up to than did Republican Helen Bentley. The racetrack owner felt he had to make big donations to these two candidates if he wanted to have influence after election day on racing issues. He thought his move was legitimate.

Still, the governor's written statement that he was ''shocked'' by the violation is laughable. The man doth protest too much -- like the police chief in the movie ''Casablanca'' declaring to the Nazi bad guys that he was ''shocked, shocked!'' to learn of a back-room casino at Rick's Cafe.

What may have shocked Mr. Glendening was that he wound up with a black eye. This explains the alacrity with which he coldly distanced himself from Mr. De Francis and sanctimoniously declared his purity as a fund-raiser.

That's a matter of contention. The Republicans rightly complain about Mr. Glendening's fixation with raising money for his 1998 re-election bid. He's hitting up every businessman he encounters not only to donate but to hold a high-roller event for him.

This comes at a time when state legislators are nearly as obsessed with pulling in money. House and Senate leaders are holding big-ticket campaign money-makers on an annual basis. So many powerful politicians are squeezing business leaders for big contributions that it's inevitable these donors will ''max out'' at the $10,000 limit and feel pressured to use proxies. Only now that Joe De Francis has been charged, they'll take extra care. The situation is getting out of hand. There are other violators from the 1994 campaign, but the paper trail isn't as legally conclusive.

A comprehensive analysis of all contributions from 1994 has never been done, in part because it would be so time-consuming: Politicians made sure the state elections board never got the money to computerize its records and never gave the board the power to scrutinize reports for violations.

At the moment, the only things that might put a halt to the compulsive fund-raising of Maryland politicians are more prosecutions and heavy doses of sunshine on campaign-finance practices. We haven't seen either yet.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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