Inaugural gifts' influence denied

Common Cause leader calls $1 million raised `a little obscene'

January 21, 1999|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's inaugural parties may not have cost taxpayers one dime, but Maryland businesses and lobbyists paid a pretty penny for them.

The governor's inaugural committee raised about $1 million to pay for the ball last night at the Baltimore Convention Center and a pre-inaugural cocktail party Sunday in College Park, according to an incomplete list of contributors.

More than $850,000 of that will cover expenses for the parties, with any money left over going to Maryland charities, officials said.

At least $565,000 in contributions came in chunks of $5,000 to $20,000 from 57 corporations, law firms, lobbyists and other special interests who were asked to show their support for the second-term governor -- a fund-raising effort that has been criticized by public-interest advocates.

"All that money is a little obscene," said Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Maryland's Common Cause, a government watchdog group. "It seems like it's the consummate influence-generating occasion."

Many companies and law firms likely to look for Glendening's help in the next four years contributed $10,000 to $20,000 each. That list includes Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and four other energy companies with a huge stake in how Maryland handles utility deregulation, a top priority for the General Assembly this year.

The law firm of Peter Angelos, who regularly has issues before state leaders, gave $20,000 to buy a table at last night's ball, and his Baltimore Orioles gave another $20,000. Whiting-Turner Construction Co., a major state contractor, also contributed $20,000.

"Inaugural parties are for the `A' list of people that are going to be doing business with the state over the next four years. That includes major state contractors, political movers and shakers," said Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. The nonpartisan group tracks money in politics.

"These are the people who are going to have the inside access to the governor or to the governor's staff -- the people who are going to get their phone calls returned much more quickly," he said.

A Glendening spokesman said such large donations will not influence the governor.

"People can continue to show their support and we appreciate it, but it's not going to change the way the governor makes decisions about policy," spokesman Ray Feldmann said. "He's going to make his policy decisions based on what's in the best interest of the state, not based on who buys a table at an inaugural ball."

Republican Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the House minority whip and a frequent critic of Glendening, said the fund raising and last night's expensive party undermined the governor's inaugural message about inclusion and a community of "one Maryland."

`Haves and have-nots'

"It sounds like two Marylands -- the haves and the have-nots," Flanagan said. "The haves are the corporate big shots and their guests who are able to spend tens of thousands of dollars for tables at elaborate parties. This is not the way the people's governor ought to enter office."

Feldmann disputed the suggestion that the inaugural ball is an exclusive event for corporations, lobbyists and political insiders only.

`As inclusive as possible'

"The reason that we've raised as much money as we have is to keep it affordable for people who want to go, for people who otherwise might not be able to afford it," Feldmann said. "We've tried to make this as inclusive as possible."

Tickets for last night's ball cost $150, and tickets for the pre-inaugural party in College Park Sunday night were $75. The inaugural committee asked for corporate sponsorships of up to $30,000, though no company appeared to give that much, according to a program given out at the ball.

Banks, health care companies, communications companies, construction firms and racing industry groups were well-represented corporate sponsors. Feldmann said a complete list of contributors would be released by tomorrow.

Inaugural fund raising has become commonplace in American politics, though such big-dollar figures are usually found in states larger than Maryland.

In Texas, an inaugural committee raised more than $1.5 million to pay for parties held this week for re-elected Gov. George W. Bush, a potential presidential contender with a formidable fund-raising network.

Sun staff writer Rafael Alvarez and researcher Andrea Wilson contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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