Group seeks inquiry into political contributions

Donors exceed Md. limits, Common Cause alleges

December 10, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

An ethics watchdog group is calling for an investigation into nearly two dozen companies and individuals it says broke Maryland's limits on political contributions.

Using state Board of Elections data, Common Cause Maryland said it found 18 companies and four individuals who gave more than the $10,000 limit for the 1999-2002 election cycle.

Previously, Common Cause had identified more than 60 contributors as breaking the limits in the same cycle, said James Browning, the group's Maryland director.

"The current limits aren't working," Browning said. "They're not limiting the influence of wealthy donors, and we need reform."

The law, designed to limit the influence any one campaign contributor can have over an election, limits giving by an individual or corporation to $10,000 to all candidates and political action committees in a four-year cycle. An individual or company is allowed to give no more than $4,000 to any one candidate in an election cycle.

The biggest violation Common Cause reported was by Cherry Hill Construction, a Jessup contracting company that has handled numerous high-profile public projects, including the new parking garage and terminal access road at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The company gave $23,255 to candidates in the past election cycle, according to the report.

Cherry Hill officials did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.

Representatives of other companies on the list said that if they exceeded the limits, it was unintentional.

"It would surprise me if we had exceeded the limits," said Kap Kapastin, general counsel for Bethesda-based Quantum Realty Management, Inc., which is listed as donating $13,351.

The Common Cause report identifies three donors that have exceeded their limits for the 2003-2006 cycle after having done so in the previous cycle.

According to the report, Schochor, Federico & Staton, a law firm specializing in medical malpractice cases, gave $16,200 in the last election cycle and has already donated $16,800 in this one.

Baltimore Marine Center, which operates a marina, apartment, office and retail complex in Canton, gave $12,845 from 1999 to 2002 and has donated $11,150 to candidates in this cycle, the report says.

Doracon, a Baltimore contracting company that has worked on public projects such as the Murphy Homes demolition and the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center, gave $14,650 in the last cycle and has given $10,398 in this one, according to the report.

Representatives of those three companies did not return phone messages yesterday.

When Doracon's excessive contributions were first reported by The Sun in 2001, the company's president, Ronald H. Lipscomb, said, "I've got to get it back. I'm so squeaky clean in town. I want to stay the same way."

Browning said his group's report doesn't take into account a loophole that many companies use to skirt the laws. By incorporating separate limited-liability companies, wealthy individuals can contribute several times the maximum amount, he said.

Enforcement of campaign finance laws falls to Maryland State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh, who was named to the post in August. Violations of the laws, which carry penalties of up to a year in jail and $25,000 in fines, were rarely prosecuted under his predecessor, Stephen Montanarelli.

Rohrbaugh said he would not comment on specific cases that have been referred to his office. He said the state Board of Elections alerts his office about violations from time to time and that his office's attorneys can also instigate cases.

"We try to get [contributors] into compliance. If they don't get into compliance, depending on each individual case, we can file either a civil or criminal action," he said. "Any matter that is referred to us by any source, we'll look at on a case-by-case basis."

Browning said the large number of companies and individuals exceeding the contribution limits shows that the state needs to more aggressively prosecute scofflaws.

"The more you give, the easier it is to get candidates who share your view elected," Browning said. "These donors, and there are a lot of developers on the list, are really able to tilt the political playing field in their direction. If you combine that with the fact that if you go over the limit, there's no penalty, it's just blatantly unfair."

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