GOP fund raising continues in months after Ehrlich's win

Companies contribute more than $500,000 since November election

January 17, 2003|By Ivan Penn and Michael Dresser | Ivan Penn and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Developers and other business interests continued to pour donations into the campaign fund of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. during the months after November's election, adding more than $500,000 to his treasury.

The records released yesterday detailing the contributions are in addition to more than $1 million donated for the new governor's inaugural festivities.

Ehrlich's running mate, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, raised a more modest $70,221 during the latest campaign finance period, which ran from the end of November until the start of the General Assembly session. Steele also raised enough money and met the deadline to retire his $32,000 in debt from a failed run for comptroller in 1998, an administration spokesman said.

The prevalence of corporations among the contributors to Ehrlich's campaign shows the enthusiasm the business world has for the new administration.

But with more than $500,000 raised just before Ehrlich took office, political watchdogs already are raising concerns about unprecedented amounts of money influencing the state's political system. Common Cause Maryland would like to see some tougher campaign finance laws, which Ehrlich said he would consider.

"It's alarming how much Ehrlich has raised toward the next campaign," said James Browning, executive director of the political watchdog organization. Ehrlich's top contributors included Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, whose firms contributed $12,000 just a week ago. He also gave $20,000 for the inauguration.

Companies tied to developer Edward St. John contributed more than $27,000 to the Ehrlich campaign, and businesses associated with developer David S. Brown gave $18,000.

Although there clearly was support from the horse racing industry and gambling interests - who will play prominently during this year's debate on legalizing slot machines - there was not nearly as much support from those business as there was from developers.

Among the top racing contributors was Centaur Inc., which gave $3,000. The Indiana-based company is buying the Rosecroft harness track in southern Prince George's County.

"What you're seeing is that people are investing in the two-party state of government," said John Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.

With Ehrlich as the state's chief executive officer, Kane said he needs the strong financial support to maintain a political organization and fund such operations as his transition team.

Democrats, however, criticized the Republicans for holding the kinds of fund-raising drives that were the subject GOP criticism of the state's Democratic Party.

"He's become the animal his party has criticized in the past, and now they've all gone mute," said David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.

Browning said he would like to see tougher controls on fund raising, including a measure to limit contributions from slate committees to individual candidates.

Meanwhile, Ehrlich signaled that he could back a different long-sought campaign finance reform measure if advocates agreed to a compromise. He said he would support closing a loophole that lets big donors - especially developers - give tens of thousands of dollars through multiple related businesses if the current $4,000 limit were increased to reflect the rising cost of television ads.

"I would look at anything that made sense," Ehrlich said. As far as the support from Angelos, Ehrlich said the Orioles owner kept his distance from former Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Still, Angelos was the largest private contributor to Maryland's Democratic Party.

Angelos' contributions to Ehrlich were made Jan. 7, four days after Ehrlich told The Washington Post he could support moves to bring a Major League Baseball team to the Washington area. It is a move that Angelos vehemently opposes.

Ehrlich dismissed the significance of the sizable contributions amassed by some donors. "When you're talking about raising $10 to 11 million, nobody has a disproportionate amount of influence," he said.

Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.

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