With political donations, less you know, better it is

July 23, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

As Joe De Francis paused on the parking lot outside District Court on Wabash Avenue last week, a little lighter in the wallet than when he arrived, he heard the rumble of thunder overhead.

"Very ominous," he said.

He meant the weather, but he understood the symbolism, too. Minutes earlier, Judge Mary Ellen Rinehardt looked at De Francis and smiled with iron teeth. Yes, she said, she appreciated his expressions of regret and, no, it didn't much matter. She was still fining him the maximum $1,000 and putting him on a year's probation.

Big deal. De Francis should worry more about the weather than the lost grand, and even more about omens in the sky. He got caught with Gov. Parris N. Glendening's hand in his pocket, and in the pockets of his grandmother, and his uncle and aunt, all of Buffalo, N.Y., and of a variety of horse-racing people who think the future of their creaky sport depends on slot machines and who tried to buy their way into the business by giving and then giving some more.

"I am very sorry for my actions," De Francis, principal owner of Pimlico and Laurel racetracks, told Rinehardt, after he'd pleaded no contest to sending $12,000 to the Glendening-Townsend campaign under his relatives' names. "I regret it very deeply."

Minutes later, in front of TV cameras, he said essentially the same thing: "Everybody makes mistakes, and I certainly made one here."

Then somebody asked De Francis a question that he pretended not to hear. A second question: De Francis heard it, but ignored it. What did this case say about the future of slot machines in Maryland? No answer. What did it say about political campaign contributions? Sorry, De Francis said, he really had to run. What did it say about the Glendening administration's tendency to grab with both hands? Did constant Glendening pressure force De Francis to reach under the table?

"Let me just say this," De Francis said, peering into the TV cameras as the first of Friday afternoon's raindrops began to fall. "We're running a race tomorrow, the Frank De Francis Memorial, that's gonna be more exciting than the 100-meter dash in the Olympics, and I want to urge everybody ..."

So that, for the moment, was how deeply affected De Francis was by this ordeal and his public exposure: Not so deeply affected that he couldn't shill for the next day's racing card, and an event honoring his late father.

And why not? Life goes on, and the bills have to be paid. The $1,000 fine? Piffle. The laundered $12,000 he'd sent to Glendening, about which the governor pronounced himself "shocked" and said he was immediately sending it back to De Francis? He didn't need the $12,000, either. De Francis said he'd send the whole thing to a cardiology center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, as a gesture of charity and contrition.

(Whenever he gets that $12,000 back, that is. When the news broke that the state prosecutor was calling the money illegal, Glendening said he was returning it to De Francis right away. vTC That was two weeks ago. As he waited for his client Friday, De Francis' attorney, Richard Karceski, said no, the money had not arrived from the governor. Yesterday, a Glendening spokesman said the money would be sent later this week -- to De Francis' grandmother, uncle and aunt.)

No one at the state prosecutor's office hints at any gubernatorial legal guilt on this. There's no evidence De Francis whispered, "I've exceeded my limits on campaign spending, Parris, but I'll be slipping you some money through my relatives in Buffalo, who know how to keep a secret."

But people still are asking: Is it conceivable that a man running for governor of Maryland could look at three checks for $4,000 each from a place such as Buffalo, N.Y., and not wonder why in the world such money would be sent his way?

Of course not. But it's the nature of politics that sometimes you don't want to know such things. If they love you in Buffalo, then they love you in Buffalo. If the checks don't bounce, who cares why they're sending them, we've got troubles with this Sauerbrey woman breathing down our necks. Thus we hear phrases about the best government money can buy.

It turns out that racetrack people were spreading money all around the last campaign for governor -- about $80,000 coming from track owners and various family members to various candidates. They want slot machines for their tracks and, in the ancient tradition, assumed that money buys influence.

Joe De Francis "is a good, civic-minded person," Karceski declared as they exited court last week. "He's never contested the facts of this case, just the criminal content. ... This is a legal flytrap."

Such talk is not isolated. In Annapolis today, a House subcommittee is scheduled to take up the subject of campaign finance laws. Some say there should be more regular reporting of contributions. Some point to loopholes used by wealthy individuals to get around the laws.

And, hanging over the meeting, inevitably, will be the issue that prompted De Francis and his friends to contribute so much money in the first place: the hunger for slot machines to breathe life into a troubled horse-racing business; or casinos, to bail out entire sections of Maryland desperate for new money.

Pub Date: 7/23/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.