Welch critics seeking to remove veteran councilwoman from ballot

Son pleaded guilty in June to filing false finance reports

October 13, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

For years, the campaign finances of City Councilwoman Agnes Welch went unreported to the state. But it was her son, not the councilwoman, who paid the price.

State officials said William A. Welch Jr., who filed false reports on his mother's behalf, was the only person who could be prosecuted. When he pleaded guilty last summer and $1,990 in late fees were paid up, the case was considered closed.

But as the 21-year council veteran runs unopposed in the new 9th District in the Nov. 2 election, Welch's critics say she could and should be held responsible.

They say that under state election law, Welch must be disqualified as a candidate and forced to repay her council salary - about $200,000 over the more than four years that her finances were unreported and late fees unpaid.

"Agnes Welch should have already been removed from the primary [ballot], should be removed from office and required to repay her salary as penalty as spelled out under the law," said Mitchell Klein, head organizer for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN.

State election officials take issue with that interpretation of the law, although they effectively applied it that way a few years ago. Under their current reading of it, candidates rarely can be held responsible for the reporting lapses of their campaign committees.

"A very reasonable policy argument can be made that the sanctions ... should be imposed on a candidate," Assistant Attorney General Robert N. McDonald wrote in an Oct. 5 letter stating the state's current position. "However, in its current form, the statute does not extend the sanctions to a candidate."

David B. Irwin, an attorney who represented Welch's son in the related criminal case and spoke on the councilwoman's behalf yesterday, said he was confident that her name would not be removed from the ballot or that she would be otherwise sanctioned.

"We certainly don't think that somebody who has been such an advocate for Baltimore City like Agnes Welch should be precluded from the ballot because of some technicality," Irwin said.

Welch is hardly the only politician whose campaign committee has failed to file to financial reports or pay late fees. The state prosecutor's office said that every year it considers criminal charges against hundreds of campaign chairmen or treasurers.

A committee for Baltimore City Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch has not filed a finance report since last year, according to state officials, and owes $1,500 in late fees. Glenn L. Ross, the Green Party candidate hoping to unseat Branch in the new 13th District, is trying to make the matter an issue in the campaign.

Branch could not be reached to comment.

Welch's campaign finance reports were delinquent when she ran in the Democratic primary in September last year and defeated an ACORN-backed candidate, Wendy Foy, by 533 votes.

Reports filed on her behalf showed the balances of her two campaign accounts did not change by a single cent - failing to reflect any expenses, contributions, even bank fees or interest - from November 1999 until August last year. William Welch, a professional accountant who prepared the reports for his mother, pleaded guilty in June to three misdemeanor counts in the case.

Klein contends that the delinquent reports made Welch ineligible for the primary and, for that reason, she should not be on the general election ballot, even if the problems have been cleared up. He has called on election officials to disqualify her.

State elections officials say Welch can remain on the ballot, contending that the only people who are liable for delinquent filings are a campaign's committee chairman or treasurer. Candidates cannot serve as their own treasurers, but they can be their own chairmen. Welch was not chairwoman of either of her committees.

"It only applies to the responsible officers of the committee," said Ross Goldstein, director of candidacy and campaign finance with the state elections board.

Election officials did not always read the law that way.

"Until a few years ago, we operated on the assumption that the candidate was responsible," said Terry Harris, deputy director of the campaign finance division of the Maryland Board of Elections. "The old way we handled it, we wouldn't allow the candidate to run for office. When he showed up and said, `Put me on the ballot,' we'd say, `No, you've got late fees.' It encouraged people to resolve their late fee issues."

Even when state elections officials took that tougher stance, they said they never forced office-holders to give back their salaries - despite state law directing them to do so.

"It's never been done," said the state elections board's Goldstein, who wasn't sure why. "It's just been the administrative practice not to do it."

Maryland election law prohibits individuals from running for or assuming public office if they have "failed to file a campaign finance report that is due from, or on behalf of, that individual."

The words "on behalf of" may suggest that the penalties apply to candidates, even if they are not acting as their own chairmen, Harris said.

"It seemed pretty clear to me that the candidate should be responsible," the state elections board's Harris said.

But Harris said her office stopped operating under that assumption within the past four years, on the advice of the attorney general's office.

McDonald, the assistant attorney general, said the "on behalf of" language is a hold-over from a time when another form of political committee, called personal treasurer accounts, were more common. Under those now rarely used accounts, candidates are responsible for their own financial filings, he said.

With the more common campaign committees, the only people who can be held responsible for reporting failures are the chairman and treasurer, he said.

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