15 receive fines for political donations

Individuals, companies cited for exceeding campaign limits

Links to development, contracting

No intentional violations seen, so civil citations are issued

April 16, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The state prosecutor issued more than $60,000 in fines yesterday to 15 individuals and companies he says violated Maryland campaign contribution limits.

Most of the companies fined are involved in development or contracting, and some have completed high-profile projects for the state.

The prosecutor, Robert A. Rohrbaugh, found that all of them had contributed more than the $10,000 limit for companies in a four-year election cycle.

The fines are the first issued for such violations in recent years, and Rohrbaugh, who has been the prosecutor seven months, said he will continue pursuing the matter as much as his office's limited resources allow.

"Apparently the practices in the past have not gotten the attention of contributors, so we do want to send a message that we intend to enforce the contribution laws," Rohrbaugh said.

He said that he did not believe the violations were intentional, and for that reason he issued civil, not criminal, citations. Future violations from those companies would result in criminal prosecution, Rohrbaugh said. The companies have the option of contesting the fines in court, much as a motorist can fight a speeding ticket.

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 fines stem from an analysis performed last year by Common Cause Maryland, a government ethics watchdog group.

When Common Cause issued its report in December, representatives of many of the companies said they believed it was in error, or that the violations were inadvertent.

James Browning, executive director of the group, said Rohrbaugh's action is "a major improvement" over the policy of his predecessor, longtime prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, who died last year.

"Montanarelli had a two-strikes-and-you're-out policy, which really made the law meaningless," Browning said. "I'd say this puts teeth into the law."

In its report, Common Cause identified 22 companies and individuals it said had violated the limits, on top of 60 others the group had identified in a previous analysis of election data from the 2003-2006 cycle.

The largest fine, $10,000, went to Doracon Contracting Inc. of Baltimore, which Rohrbaugh found had exceeded the limits in both the 1999-2002 and 2003- 2006 cycles.

Doracon, headed by developer Ronald H. Lipscomb, has worked on public projects such as the Murphy Homes demolition and the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center. It gave $14,650 in the last cycle and has given $10,398 in this one, according to Common Cause.

Seven companies were fined $5,000, the maximum for violations in a single election cycle.

They include Cherry Hill Construction Inc. of Jessup, which was listed at the largest violator in the Common Cause report with $23,255 in donations to candidates in this cycle.

Cherry Hill has handled numerous high-profile public projects, including the new parking garage and terminal-access road at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Rohrbaugh also assessed maximum fines on the Baltimore Marine Center; Marcorp Ltd. of Baltimore; Munsey Building LLC of Baltimore; Quantum Realty Management of Hyattsville; Schafer's Roll-Off Service of Baltimore, and the law firm Schochor, Federico and Staton of Baltimore.

Browning said the fines don't make up for loopholes that exist in the law. Contributors can evade donation limits by funneling contributions through limited liability corporations.

As long as each LLC has a slightly different ownership structure, it doesn't count against an owner's donation cap. Developers, who often incorporate a new LLC for each project, most often take advantage of the tactic.

"The sad fact is that any one of these companies could still give as much as they wanted to by funneling it through LLCs," Browning said.

A bill to limit the practice failed in this year's legislative session after Rohrbaugh wrote lawmakers a letter saying it would be impossible to enforce.

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