Prince George's official adept at bringing home the bacon

Lawlah wins state aid for obscure pet project

March 24, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Around the State House, it's nothing unusual for legislators to do what they can to obtain government funding for pet projects back home.

And then there's Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah and the Alliance for Southern Prince George's Communities Inc.

Lawlah, an energetic third-term Democrat, has used her influence to single-handedly secure $400,000 in state money for the nonprofit alliance during the past four years, and she is seeking another $150,000 for next year.

Records and interviews suggest that Lawlah has proven remarkably adept at pulling strings to win state aid for an obscure group without much of a track record - but one with which she maintains unusually close ties, and one that clearly strengthens her political hold on her district.

The group shares space with Lawlah's legislative district office in Oxon Hill. Its board includes some of her longtime political allies, and its state grants are distributed liberally to community groups in the district.

Lawlah does not dispute that she might reap political benefit from some of the organization's community activities. But she says that was hardly her goal in creating the group in the mid-1990s. "I am so proud of them, I don't know what to do," she said.

The alliance, Lawlah said, operates like a "clearinghouse" for a community that has few well-financed institutions. "You've got to have strong nonprofits to build communities," she said. "You've got to do it in partnership with government."

To find the alliance, go no farther than the legislative office in Oxon Hill shared by Lawlah and the three Democratic delegates from the 26th District. A partition separates the alliance offices from the lawmakers' district office. The alliance shares the rent with the state.

Lawlah and her delegates cleared the unusual office-sharing arrangement with the General Assembly's presiding officers and the Maryland attorney general's office.

The organization's board includes several members with close political ties to Lawlah, including at various times two members of the Democratic State Central Committee, two of Lawlah's campaign treasurers and the wife of a Prince George's County school board member who ran on Lawlah's slate.

The group's main charitable activity is channeling state-funded "mini-grants" to local PTAs and sororities in Lawlah's district for tutoring programs. But it also operates as something of a one-stop shop for Lawlah's legislative district, dispensing emergency aid and Thanksgiving food baskets to low-income residents and throwing an annual picnic for seniors, with many of the activities paid for by state taxpayers.

"Our No. 1 priority is education, but we also do a lot of community outreach," said Betty Horton-Hodge, the alliance's executive director. "We believe in what we do."

For a group that is almost completely dependent on state funds, the alliance has a somewhat politically tinged agenda. The group accepted a $2,000 grant from the Prince George's Democratic Party to do a voter registration drive last year - an effort that netted more than 1,000 new voters, according to Horton-Hodge. The alliance also led a get-out-the-vote campaign during last fall's election in heavily Democratic southern Prince George's County.

Legal advice

Horton-Hodge said the alliance relied on legal advice saying that a tax-exempt organization may accept money from a political party to sign up new voters as long as the group remains nonpartisan.

A spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service said tax law allows nonprofits to engage in political activity such as voter registration, but it cannot promote any political party or candidate. "What we suggest is that all organizations be extremely careful in how they approach it," said Sam Serio, an IRS spokesman in Baltimore.

Much of the group's state money has come in the form of grants from the Maryland Department of Education; budget language specified that the funding go to the alliance. In securing that money the past two years, the alliance might have skirted a Maryland law that requires nonprofit groups to match Education Department grants with money raised privately, according to a review of state records.

The organization has satisfied the matching-fund requirement by pointing to $100,000 the group received in 1999 and last year from the owners of Rosecroft Raceway, which is in Lawlah's district.

That money is actually a state grant put in the budget by Gov. Parris N. Glendening at Lawlah's request, and passed on by the track to the alliance as "impact aid" to an area inconvenienced by having a horse track nearby.

The budget specified that the grant would go to the alliance.

Horton-Hodge said she believed the state money that flows through Rosecroft satisfies the matching-fund requirement. "Technically, that's a matching grant," she said. "It's not a state grant."

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