Funds raise ethics queries

Ruppersberger's accounts in Congress bid entangled

Executive denies any misuse

Federal law prohibits state money in U.S. race

August 21, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger spent tens of thousands of dollars collected under state fund-raising rules on polling and consultants in the months when he was exploring a congressional bid, a new campaign finance report shows.

Federal law prohibits using money raised under state campaign finance rules for a federal race.

Ruppersberger denies that his federal campaign benefited in any way from the use of his $1.6 million state campaign fund, but his opponents in the 2nd Congressional District disagree.

The records show that Ruppersberger hired fund-raising consultant Stephanie Mellinger last fall, paying her $37,800 between Oct. 23, 2001, and May 1, 2002, out of the state funds. In January, he also paid $45,500 to the Washington-based polling firm Hickman-Brown.

Ruppersberger's congressional campaign manager, Jim Cauley, said Mellinger was hired to raise money and coordinate a gubernatorial bid, and the poll was to gauge support for that race. During that period, however, Ruppersberger spoke about a congressional run, not a gubernatorial bid, and wasn't raising money for a state race. His state campaign account has not recorded a single contribution since Sept. 10, 2001.

He formally declared for Congress on April 29, although he signed a statement of candidacy April 14 and collected his first contribution April 1.

The records also show a payroll check from the state account for Christopher W. Povloski, a campaign aide who no longer works for Ruppersberger. Povloski said he did some work for the state committee and the congressional campaign.

"To be honest with you, the office itself wasn't fully set up as a congressional office in order hopefully not to get busted," Povloski said. "They wanted to make sure the office was showing up as a dual office until the lease changed."

Bill Allison, spokesman for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan government ethics watchdog group, said the use of state money for federal purposes probably happens all the time but is rarely caught.

Michael S. Kosmas, campaign coordinator for former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, the front-running Republican in the race, said Ruppersberger's use of state funds was "shameless."

"If the letter of the law wasn't violated, the spirit of the law was mutilated," Kosmas said.

Cauley said that Ruppersberger's congressional campaign did its best to follow the rules.

"It's a moving target," he said, referring to the point when the gubernatorial campaign ended and the congressional campaign started. "Anything that was wrong, we tried to correct."

Federal election law allows for a "testing the waters" period before candidates formally declare for Congress, when they may conduct polls and other limited political activity.

However, the same limits and prohibitions apply to the money used to test the waters and to run an actual campaign, including the prohibition against using surplus state campaign funds, said Kelly Huff, a Federal Election Commission spokesman.

If a candidate decides to run for office, he or she would have to go back and report all testing-the-waters fund raising and expenditures, but that money cannot come from a state account, she said.

"Essentially, he is spending money that was not raised at the federal level for federal purposes, and that in itself is a fairly serious violation," Allison said. "Obviously, nobody goes to jail for it ... but it shows at the least a certain kind of underhandedness in not making these things transparent."

On May 1, Ruppersberger's campaign acknowledged using old brochures and bumper stickers bought with state money on the campaign's opening day but blamed volunteers and the chaos of the kickoff.

After initial reports of the distribution of the brochures and stickers, David C. Deger, finance chairman of both Ruppersberger's state and federal campaigns, said he knew all along that expenditures from the state and federal funds would overlap for rent, office supplies and campaign materials.

Deger said he waited until he could make a final accounting of this overlap and write one check from the federal account to the state account. On May 30, he did, sending $17,327.14 from one account to the other.

That covers the bumper stickers and brochures, furniture, snacks, office supplies, postage, rent and a $7,138.95 catering bill for a pre-announcement party at Ruppersberger's home.

Oz Bengur, a businessman opposing Ruppersberger in the Democratic primary, charged that the use of state funds fell into "a pattern of abusing the system that dates back to when he first started in office." Bengur pointed to previous reports of potential conflicts of interest, such as companies Ruppersberger owned profiting from county business.

"This guy calls himself the CEO of the county. I think now we know what he really means by that," Bengur said. "This is really the kind of abuse of power and the rules Congress is trying to legislate against with CEOs around the country."

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