Activists heading to court to fight pro-highway ads

They say Montgomery Co. group not fairly regulated

Election 2002

October 09, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Montgomery County community activists are heading to court today to try to prevent a pro-highway group with development industry ties from spending money on political advertisements, claiming the effort violates state campaign finance laws.

The case against Citizens for Quality Living has broad implications, activists say, because the group has apparently collected and spent tens of thousands of dollars on County Council races without disclosing its donors.

If the courts and the state attorney general's office condone its activities, some Montgomery residents say, the state's disclosure laws regulating political committees would be defanged.

"It was a real effort to buy and pay for this campaign," said Dolores Milmoe of Poolesville, a member of a competing political committee. "The bottom line here is a lot of people will profit if certain people are in office and they produce the agenda that they want. It's a new low in the process."

But group leaders say they are simply applying to local politics the type of legal soft-money tactics that others have practiced in statewide races for years - such as pushing for higher cigarette taxes and tougher gun restrictions.

"It is much the same technique as our very sophisticated electorate in Montgomery County is very used to seeing," said Damian O'Doherty, president of Citizens for Quality Living and an executive with a Washington-area Realtor board. "The story here is that this is the first time that issue advocacy has been used at the local level in Montgomery County."

The case underscores mounting frustration in the state's largest jurisdiction over traffic congestion and the best way to alleviate it. Citizens for Quality Living was formed to support the Intercounty Connector, which advocates hope will relieve Washington Beltway traffic, and other road and rail projects.

Many community groups and environmentalists oppose the connector road, saying it will destroy streams and forests without providing traffic relief.

Citizens for Quality Living was formed this year, with members from the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors.

It backed many of the same transportation projects pushed by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, and apparently opposed some of the same slow-growth council members at odds with Duncan.

Pam Lindstrom, campaign treasurer for Councilman Philip Andrews, said she received brochures in her mailbox before the September primary, paid for by the group. The mailings, she said, were clearly intended to defeat Andrews, who won his primary race.

"If you received five different mailings with Phil's face on them, with `wrong' slashed across the face, you would think it's political [campaign] literature," Lindstrom said. "We do so much work to comply with every little sub-paragraph of election law, and these people can choose not to do any of it."

Doherty said the group plans to comply with a recent Internal Revenue Service law covering advocacy groups and will disclose its contributors on Oct. 15, a deadline contained in federal regulations.

An attorney representing Citizens for Quality Living said the organization is protected by the Constitution's free speech provisions. Because its advertisements never explicitly asked residents to vote for or against specific candidates, it need not be registered with the state, said Joseph E. Sandler.

"The law could not be clearer that an organization like this that praises or criticizes elected officials for their position on issues without expressly advocating their election or defeat cannot be regulated as a political committee," Sandler said.

Maryland law limits donors to $10,000 in contributions for each four-year election cycle. By not registering, Lindstrom said, the group is allowing business interests to buy political advertisements after reaching their limit.

She filed a complaint with the state elections board, saying the group should have registered as a political action committee because it is targeting candidates.

At a hearing today in Montgomery Circuit Court, residents will seek a temporary restraining order to prevent the group from spending money before the Nov. 5 general election.

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