Governor's New York fund-raiser criticized Top Democrats vow to redouble efforts on campaign law reform

August 10, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith and William F. Zorzi Jr. | C. Fraser Smith and William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Democrats joined Republicans and a citizens watchdog group yesterday to decry a fund-raising party held for Gov. Parris Glendening by a New Jersey firm during a time when the firm was seeking a multimillion-dollar health services contract for Maryland state employees.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., both Democrats, said accounts of the $1,000-a-ticket New York City reception on July 23 will redouble their commitment to tightening campaign fund-raising laws, including more frequent reporting.

"I won't comment on the morality or ethics of it. Common sense dictates what the governor should or should not do," Miller said.

"It's an unfortunate example of the need for reform," Taylor said.

But a spokesman for the governor said again yesterday that Glendening was unaware of the contract bid by Merit Behavioral Care Corp. of Park Ridge, N.J., until he boarded a company jet and headed for the party in New York.

The governor decided immediately to refuse contributions from Merit and the company's chairman, Albert S. Waxman, who was host of the party at his Manhattan apartment. Some 50 other business executives invited by Merit might still contribute.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., also a Democrat, said he saw nothing in the accounts of the fund-raising event that seemed illegal.

Others called the fund-raiser and its timing -- just before the governor will be called upon to vote on the Merit bid as early as Sept. 4 -- "outrageous."

"This is a clear example of the corrupting influence of large campaign contributions," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, the government watchdog group. "This has jeopardized the integrity of the state procurement process."

'We have regressed'

The Maryland Republican Party chairwoman, Joyce Lyons Terhes, offered a strong condemnation.

"We have gone back to the Maryland of the closed, back-room deals," she said. "We had a reputation for being one of the most corrupt states in the country. I thought it had improved, but we have regressed."

As for the governor's explanation, she said, "He didn't know? Give me a break."

But the governor's spokesman, Raymond C. Feldmann, insisted it is the governor's "philosophy" not to accept contributions from any firm or individual with a financial interest pending before the Board of Public Works, a panel that consists of the governor, comptroller and state treasurer.

Asked to explain the philosophy, he said Glendening feels "it's inappropriate for him to be accepting political contributions from an individual or individuals who are associated with a company that has a bid that's going to come before him and the Board of Public Works."

Policy and practice

How such a policy might work in practice was baffling to some.

"Some of these contributors are bidding all the time," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Washington County Democrat who chairs a legislative subcommittee dealing with procurement issues. Anyone who thinks fund raising could proceed under such circumstances is in "never-never land," he said.

"He would totally turn off a quarter of the contributors who participate in state politics," Poole said. "You always have to pursue. People are just not that willing to give up the big bucks."

If he were governor, he said, he would want better staff work from his campaign.

"Someone on the staff should look farther out on the horizon. If someone is pushing slot machines at racetracks or if you know a major health care contract is out there worth big bucks, that ought to send up a signal."

Feldmann earlier identified the staff person in this case as a campaign volunteer, Melinda Evans. He said that she had

learned of the Merit bid shortly before getting on the airplane with the governor.Yesterday, he said he could provide no further information about her.

A woman fitting a description of Evans given by sources answered the door of a Glen Burnie home last night but refused to identify herself or to answer a reporter's questions.

"I don't have time for this," she said tearfully. "My mother is critically ill."

Sources say Evans, 46, works for a Lanham computer company and has been a volunteer on the Glendening campaign since before the 1994 primary election. In recent months, she has had a more active role as a volunteer fund-raiser, sources said.

Benefit of the doubt

Curran, the attorney general, said he wanted to give Glendening the benefit of the doubt.

"I can't imagine he knowingly got into this," Curran said. "I think he was not served well by someone who should have known of this. I'm sure the governor doesn't want to do something that will embarrass him."

As for the fund-raising issue, Curran said he thinks public financing is the answer.

Glendening has said he would not accept public funding and did not accept it during his 1994 campaign. His opponent, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, took the public money and almost pulled off an upset, losing to Glendening by 5,999 votes. He spent a record $5.2 million in that campaign.

For 1998, Glendening is expected to raise and spend considerably more.

He has held a number of small, private fund-raisers in Maryland since his election -- and next month plans a major fund-raising event at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore.

Packets of 20 $1,000 tickets have been mailed to potential contributors around the state. A $1,000 ticket entitles supporters to attend the event's VIP reception; $125 tickets will be sold for smaller contributors not attending the reception.

Pub Date: 8/10/96

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