Fund raising keeps rolling

Events use loopholes in state law banning fund-raisers in session

`Money-raising machines'

Reform advocates decry filling of coffers by parties, politicians

February 27, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr. | Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

For two years, Maryland law has banned state elected officials from fund raising during the General Assembly's annual 90-day session, but that has not put an end to the search for political contributions around the State House.

Thanks to a number of exceptions in the law, Maryland political parties, candidates for federal office and some state officials are either raising money or actively cultivating their most generous supporters in the midst of the legislative session.

In the most prominent example, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and the Assembly's two presiding officers appeared at a Democratic Party Trustees dinner in Annapolis last week -- to toast individuals who have given the state party more than $10,000 a year and to begin recruiting another dozen would-be contributors.

Among those wooed to become major party donors were a handful of State House lobbyists; racetrack owner Joseph A. De Francis, who has millions of dollars in state financing assistance at stake in the legislature; and William Rickman, a Montgomery County businessman seeking a state license for a horse track in Cumberland.

No money changed hands at the event, but party officials acknowledge that they held the affair as part of their continuing efforts to raise more $10,000 gifts.

"These are people who would share the ideals of the Democratic Party," said state party Chairman Wayne L. Rogers, "people to whom life has been good."

The gifts would be legal.

The state law that prohibits elected officials from raising money does not apply to gifts to political parties, an exception that has allowed the Maryland Democratic Party to take in more than $200,000 during the previous two legislative sessions, campaign finance reports show.

No limits are set on how much individuals can contribute to state parties.

Last week after the dinner, the governor cast it more as a political chat than a fund-raising event.

"There was no discussion by me or staff about fund raising," Glendening said. "This was about policy, about issues and about politics. These are people who love to talk about politics."

Such fund-raising activity dismays advocates for stricter state laws on campaign financing.

"Everywhere we turn now, there are these huge money-raising machines," said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a campaign finance watchdog group. "Apparently, there is no longer any pretense about whether or not big money rules."

A 1997 law prohibits the 188 members of the General Assembly, the governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and the comptroller from raising money for their re-election efforts while the Assembly is in session.

The legislation was designed to clamp down on the unsavory practice of elected officials picking up campaign contributions from special interests at the same time those interests are seeking legislation in the State House.

Other exceptions

But along with the exception for political parties, the law allows other political fund raising to continue during the 90 days the legislature is meeting. Some examples:

Del. Bennett Bozman, an Eastern Shore Democrat, held a $100-a-head fund-raiser at an Annapolis hotel Friday to help with his run for Congress from the 1st District. Among the guests were a few State House lobbyists. State law provides a specific exemption for lawmakers running for federal office.

On a smaller scale, some legislators who are seeking to be delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in the summer have told lobbyists they will need campaign contributions to pay for the trip to California. Such gifts could also be made during the session, because they are to help with a campaign for a federal office, the state attorney general's office has concluded.

Glendening, who is barred from raising money for his political accounts, has quietly rounded up almost $200,000 in recent weeks by selling tickets to a Democratic Governors Association (DGA) fund-raiser tomorrow night with President Clinton at Union Station in Washington.

Prominent Maryland business people, such as Michael G. Bronfein, chief executive of NeighborCare Pharmacies, are among those who have purchased tickets to the event.

"As part of the leadership of the group, I'm expected to do certain things," Glendening said. "We've done it for five years."

The DGA has been good to Glendening, sending more than $170,000 to help with his re-election in 1998, according to campaign finance reports.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, ran into criticism from some Democrats for soliciting contributions of as much as $500 from her supporters in the fall to become members of her "Team 2000."

That afforded them the opportunity to attend as many as three meetings with her during the 90-day session.

While the legislature's ethics counsel has deemed her Annapolis meetings legal, her critics raised questions about selling access to legislators.

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