Unofficial campaigns raise funding questions

As undeclared candidates travel, expenses an issue

September 18, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

With the most competitive election season in memory clearly under way, several of the most prominent politicians vying for a U.S. Senate seat and the governor's office have yet to formally declare they are running.

But these current officeholders appear to be spending time campaigning for new jobs, raising questions among observers and critics about whether taxpayer money for their salaries - as well as for the paychecks of staffers who may join them and ancillary expenses such as police protection, vehicle miles and meals - is being properly spent.

Last week, a polished sport utility vehicle carrying Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele rolled into Havre de Grace, the 47th stop on a months-long tour of Maryland's 157 municipalities.

Addressing a few city department heads who were outnumbered by the state officials Steele brought with him, the lieutenant governor said the visits started long before he considered running for the U.S. Senate.

"This journey began in the spring of 2003, not the spring of 2005," said Steele, a Republican. "We have a serious commitment."

A few days later, Douglas M. Duncan, an all-but-declared Democratic candidate for governor, arrived for a noon visit at a recreation center in Hagerstown - hours from the Rockville offices he occupies as Montgomery County executive. Duncan aides said it was the 21st county he has visited on a "listening and learning tour" of the state, leaving just two to go.

While slightly less visible, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, another Democratic gubernatorial aspirant, has been delivering speeches to political clubs and visiting leaders outside the city.

Are these government trips or campaign stops? And who is paying the bill?

"I think it's a fair and legitimate question," said Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Where is the line drawn? What is appropriate and what is not appropriate?"

Those decisions, for the most part, are made by the politicians themselves and the voters who might be paying attention to them. Recognizing the need for a firewall, Montgomery County officials are drafting a reimbursement policy, but some say it is being put into place too late.

`Mushy' distinction

Maryland law gives wide leeway to how elected leaders spend their time, said Robert A. Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general who is counsel to the General Assembly.

"It's mushy, as you might expect," Zarnoch said. "Elected officials don't have to take leave like an average state employee. If they never show up for office at all, they will still get paid. They don't fill out time sheets."

Perhaps predictably, partisans on both sides said the presumed candidates of the opposing party are exploiting their current offices for political gain.

Steele's attempt to visit every city in Maryland is a thinly disguised taxpayer-funded effort to raise his profile as he is exploring a run for Senate, said Derek Walker, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.

"The exploratory committee and Michael Steele as lieutenant governor are synonymous, as far as I am concerned," Walker said. "Having him drag half of the state government around the state to promote his personal image doesn't really do anything to address the day-to-day needs of Marylanders."

Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, said Steele and the governor are simply doing their jobs when they visit towns or produce television advertisements promoting tourism.

"When the governor or the lieutenant governor do commercials, you see E-Z Pass subscriptions going up, you see people leaving for the beach earlier," Miller said. "It's good stewardship for the state."

Norris and several observers said that as the holder of a statewide office, Steele has more legitimate reasons to visit far-flung corners of Maryland during working hours than does a local official such as Duncan.

"As a Republican, I have mixed feelings about it," said Steve Abrams, a former Montgomery County GOP head and an elected county school board member who is critical of Duncan. "I hate what he is doing to waste taxpayers' money for his political campaign, but I love that we are getting him out of the county."

New policy

Montgomery County Council member Marilyn Praisner began questioning Duncan's travels during budget negotiations this year, when she and others learned about the creation of a relatively new executive protection unit. County officials then began developing a policy for the executive's campaign to reimburse the county for vehicle use, for lodging costs for the security officers during overnight stays and for other expenses.

Montgomery County Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Romer said the county will begin billing a flat-rate fee of several hundred dollars a month to the Duncan campaign "at the time when the county executive becomes an announced candidate for another office."

But that's too late, Praisner said, to offer full protection.

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