Md. probe of Senate president is ended

State prosecutor found no violations in Miller's fund-raising practices

January 13, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said yesterday that he is closing a six-month investigation of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's fund-raising practices because he found no evidence of any violations of Maryland election laws.

The decision lifts a cloud hanging over the Prince George's County Democrat as the General Assembly prepares to start the 2004 legislative session tomorrow. However, federal authorities are continuing a separate inquiry into Miller.

"I don't think that he should have this hanging over him because I don't have any evidence of any criminal conduct on his part regarding violations of state election law," Montanarelli said.

In a statement, Miller said he appreciated Montanarelli's announcement and that it will allow him to focus on the upcoming legislative session.

After conducting a "thorough review of the facts, he has determined that there was no misconduct involved in my handling of campaign funds on behalf of the Democratic Party," Miller said.

Miller had drawn fire for using a national political committee that he controlled, the Democratic Leadership Campaign Committee, to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in "soft money" from gambling and other interests.

Among the biggest contributors: Maryland horse racing executive Joseph A. De Francis, who gave $225,000 in the months leading up to last year's debate over whether to install slot machines at the state's racetracks.

A supporter of slots and horse racing for many years, Miller pushed hard for legislation that would have allowed slots at racetracks only. The measure would have benefited De Francis, who is chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club and has a minority ownership interest in Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County.

Some of the DLCC's money was used to help bankroll campaigns of Maryland political candidates; critics suggested that that skirted a state law that limits the amount of money any individual or company can contribute in Maryland.

Montanarelli said out-of-state political committees and nonprofit groups that raise "soft money" nationally, such as the DLCC, do not have to register in Maryland and are not regulated by state campaign finance law.

"Both political parties have used them for donations that exceed [Maryland's] limits," he said. "But it's legal. It doesn't seem like campaign contribution limits in Maryland are effective."

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a watchdog group, said he doesn't fault Montanarelli for his decision. "He's right that the current laws don't work," said Browning, adding that the General Assembly needs to change them.

"Mike Miller, with his multiple accounts, makes a mockery of the current campaign finance system in Maryland," Browning said.

It was not clear what effect, if any, the state prosecutor's decision might have on the federal inquiry of Miller's fund-raising practices.

"We have no comment," said Vickie E. LeDuc, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiaggio, when asked about the status of that inquiry.

David B. Irwin, attorney for De Francis, said his client is hopeful the federal probe "is wrapped up in the same fashion" within the next few weeks. "It's the same set of facts," Irwin said.

Montanarelli said that he felt no political pressure to close his office's investigation. "I think it's the right thing to do and if I'm criticized for it, I'm criticized for it," he said.

A report by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group, found that Maryland individuals and corporate donors gave $4.8 million in the past three years to dozens of "soft money" political committees such as the DLCC.

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