As Cummings rose, financial problems grew

Politician struggled with child support, taxes, mortgage

October 17, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Symbols of his rise to power surround Elijah E. Cummings in his office near Druid Hill Park, framed pictures that proclaim him a bright star in Maryland's political constellation:

Cummings with President Clinton. Cummings with Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Cummings addressing the House of Delegates in his days as a leader in Annapolis.

Even as he's attained prominence as a public official over the past decade, however, Cummings has struggled in his private life against profound financial woes.

At one point, while earning $136,700 a year representing Baltimore in Congress, he missed six straight mortgage payments worth about $5,200, triggering foreclosure proceedings against his West Baltimore home. Cummings said he even spent two winters as a congressman without heat, because he could not afford to fix his furnace.

In a recent interview, the 48-year-old representative insisted that his financial crises have never affected his ability to meet his public duties.

"Most of my problems stem from trying to pursue my dream of starting and maintaining my law firm," he said. "When you own a business, when you begin [slipping] financially, it can become like going down a mountain of ice."

A review of state and federal records and interviews with associates provide a picture of a man who has spent years warding off debt collectors, juggling unpaid tax bills and paying to support several children.

Those problems were mounting even as Cummings, a public official for 17 years, was becoming a highly popular and influential figure. In his district, Cummings is regarded by some constituents as a surrogate mayor, and he frequently plays host to Cabinet officials and President Clinton when they visit Baltimore.

Only this year, the Democratic congressman said, has he shaken free of most of his debts. He had previously characterized his difficulties as those born of his decision in late 1995 to run for Congress after Rep. Kweisi Mfume announced that he would resign.

Among his most serious troubles:

In the mid-1990s, the Internal Revenue Service filed court papers declaring that Cummings was legally obliged to pay more than $30,000 in unpaid federal taxes. He finished paying those taxes earlier this year.

Cummings appears to have violated campaign finance law by having a donor co-sign a loan that supplied $15,000 for his first House campaign, attorneys knowledgeable about that law say.

In five instances, creditors went to court to force Cummings to pay a total of $24,000 in overdue debts.

Cummings said he has been short of money, in part, because he helps to support three children: his college-age daughter with his now-estranged wife and two children he fathered by other women out of wedlock -- a 16-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter. Cummings said he paid about $30,000 last year in child support and tuition payments.

The congressman has referred to his younger daughter in many speeches. But until now, he has never publicly acknowledged the existence of his son. The teen-ager lives with his mother in Baltimore.

In 1997, Cummings underwent what he would describe only as "major surgery," which he said drained him of energy and money. "It was a tough year -- unquestionably the toughest of my life," he said.

Driven by `conscience'

Cummings said he has consistently endeavored to repair his tattered finances without relying on help from anyone with a personal stake in matters that he can affect as a congressman.

"I have a moral conscience that is real central," he said. "I didn't ask the federal government or anyone else to do me any favors."

Cummings has often said that he sacrificed a lucrative legal career to serve in public life. In one typical exchange in 1997, he told a reporter that he had taken a sharp pay cut to go to Congress.

Cummings said recently that in at least one year, his law practice produced hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, far more than he earns as a congressman. And he said he could have made far more working elsewhere.

To understand his situation now, Cummings said, you have to know where he came from: His parents moved to south Baltimore in 1945, leaving behind harsh lives as sharecroppers in South Carolina on land where his ancestors had been slaves. Elijah, one of seven children, was born in 1951. There was little money. His father was a laborer, his mother a housekeeper. Many of his young friends ended up tangling with the law.

"I made a decision that I was going to be a lawyer," Cummings said. "That was my decision, and it became my dream."

As a child, he struggled in elementary school and was assigned to special-education courses. Eventually, though, he improved. After showing promise in high school at City College, he won Phi Beta Kappa honors at Howard University. He graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law and passed the state bar in 1976.

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