DeFrancis is fined for illegal funding Track owner pleads no contest to violating campaign finance laws

July 20, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,STAFF WRITER

In a case with possible repercussions for both Maryland horse racing and state campaign finance laws, racetrack owner Joseph A. De Francis was found guilty yesterday of making illegal campaign contributions to Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

De Francis, 41, entered a no contest or "nolo contendere" plea as part of a bargain struck with state prosecutors. The rarely used plea spared him a criminal conviction but subjected him to the same penalties.

Baltimore District Judge Mary Ellen Rinehardt sentenced De Francis to a $1,000 fine, the maximum the misdemeanor charge carries, plus $50 in court costs. He was also given "probation before judgment," a verdict that will result in one year's unsupervised probation and a chance to wipe his record completely clean in the future.

The charge against De Francis stemmed from his funneling $12,000 in donations to Glendening's election fund through his grandmother, aunt and uncle, all residents of Buffalo, N.Y. That arrangement permitted De Francis to avoid state-imposed limits on political contributions.

After receiving the money from De Francis in October 1994, his relatives wrote checks for $4,000 each to the Glendening-Townsend campaign.

The majority owner of the Pimlico and Laurel race tracks, De Francis has spearheaded efforts, so far unsuccessful, to legalize slot machines at his tracks.

Inside the courtroom in Northwest Baltimore, De Francis told Judge Rinehardt he was "very sorry" for actions he regretted "deeply" and promised never to reappear in her or any other courtroom.

After the proceeding, De Francis insisted that he never had any intention of violating the law and said he pleaded no contest to avoid a "lengthy trial litigating the technicalities of this ambiguous statute."

"There was never any intention or attempt on my part to hide, disguise or conceal the reimbursement," De Francis said.

The no-contest plea is most closely associated in Maryland history with Spiro T. Agnew. The one-time governor entered the plea in federal court in October 1973 on an income tax evasion charge when he voluntarily stepped down as vice president.

Money to be donated

Richard M. Karceski, a Towson lawyer who represented De Francis, asked Judge Rinehardt to consider imposing a sentence of community service. De Francis also pledged to donate the $12,000 that must be returned to him by the Glendening campaign to a cardiology center at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Judge Rinehardt told De Francis, however, that community service was inappropriate and that a term of probation was necessary as a "deterrent to other people who would engage in political contributions as you did."

Yesterday's trial was held just 10 days after the charge was filed against De Francis.

Judge Rinehardt, who expedited the pace of the proceedings by nearly one month, said the scheduling did not represent special treatment, but was an effort to accommodate both sides in the case and held no "nefarious purpose."

Bad timing, shortcomings

The De Francis case came at a critical time for the racing industry. De Francis is pushing for slots at his tracks in order to better compete with out-of-state gambling.

But the case also has highlighted the shortcomings of Maryland's campaign finance laws. Assistant State Prosecutor A. Thomas Krehely Jr. said that while De Francis cooperated by providing prosecutors with bank records, the state lacked the authority to compel key witnesses to appear before a grand jury.

He noted that jail time was never a consideration in the case -- it is rarely imposed for a misdemeanor first offense. But he also questioned whether a $1,000 fine represented much of a deterrent.

"A thousand dollars is nothing, and no court is going to put someone like Mr. De Francis in jail," Krehely said.

'Out of control' system

Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the De Francis case demonstrated that Maryland has a campaign finance system that is "out of control."

"Wealthy individuals try to use the influence of large contributions to benefit their personal agenda," Povich said. "Through this type of case is seldom prosecuted in Maryland, it is only a symptom of a system that does a great disservice to the electorate and to democracy."

A Glendening representative reiterated the governor's position yesterday that he and his campaign staff had no knowledge of the illegal contributions. Bruce L. Marcus, a spokesman for the campaign, said the outcome "signals the need to strictly adhere to all of Maryland's fair campaign finance laws."

Finance laws may change

The General Assembly's top leaders played down the significance of the case to any future deliberations over gambling. But both acknowledged a need to consider changes in campaign finance law in the future.

"This misdemeanor campaign violation is completely irrelevant to the substance of the issue of racetrack gambling," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat. "[But] I think there are some areas of campaign financing regulation that could be and should be clarified, made more understandable and more consistent."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, said the case's effect on campaign finance laws will "definitely be felt" in the next legislative session.

A House subcommittee is scheduled to take up the subject at a public hearing Tuesday.

Pub Date: 7/20/96

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