Campaign staffer denies stealing

Branch ex-treasurer says councilwoman told him to fund group from her account

September 25, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

The former campaign treasurer for a Baltimore city councilwoman is vowing to fight charges of theft and embezzlement brought by the state prosecutor by contending that he followed his candidate's orders when spending money from her election account, according to his attorney.

Momoh Abu Conteh has been charged with stealing money from Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch at about the same time he was running for the state Democratic Central Committee as a member of Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden's 2002 re-election ticket.

But Conteh says Branch ordered him to give $2,000 in cash to Marie Washington, a leader of the powerful Eastside Democratic Organization, for the McFadden team's re-election efforts, said Conteh's attorney, Steven D. Silverman. The attorney said Conteh wrote a check out for cash and included the notation that it was for the "McFadden Team." Conteh cashed the check and delivered the money to Washington, Silverman said.

"It makes zero sense that someone is going to steal money and write a legitimate memo for it" on the check, Silverman said. "If you're going to steal money, you're going to write `office supplies.' My understanding is that Conteh was told this was for walking-around money."

So-called walking-around money is cash paid to workers who hand out campaign materials on Election Day. Such payments had been prohibited by a state law that the Maryland Court of Appeals struck down last year.

The court ruled in March 2004 that prohibiting walking-around money violated the U.S. Constitution by unduly restricting free speech.

Branch denied Conteh's contention. McFadden and Washington could not be reached for comment.

McFadden is the majority leader of the Maryland Senate and the leader of the EDO, which has held significant sway over East Baltimore politics for decades. Washington is a longtime EDO member and is president of East Baltimore Community Corp., an umbrella nonprofit group that represents 25 neighborhood groups. She also heads an employment training program.

Branch said she was surprised that Conteh was making such an allegation against the three people who have helped him attain a career in political organizing.

"I don't know why he's saying that," she said. "I never told him any such things."

Conteh, 48, of the 2800 block of E. Chase St. was arrested by Baltimore police Sept. 6 at his downtown city government office, where he works as a personnel administrator for the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development. Conteh is on unpaid leave pending an investigation, Silverman said.

A three-count indictment handed up by a grand jury in Anne Arundel County, where campaign finance reports are filed, charged Conteh with theft, embezzlement and perjury while he served as treasurer to a campaign committee for Branch.

Conteh plans to plead not guilty at his arraignment Oct. 3 and expects a trial to start early next year, Silverman said.

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh's office alleges that Conteh embezzled $2,000 from the "Supporters of Paula Johnson-Branch Committee" and filed a false campaign report with the Board of Elections in Annapolis. If convicted, Conteh could receive maximum penalties of up to $25,000 in fines and up to 15 years in prison.

The state prosecutor's office began investigating Conteh after receiving a complaint this year about Branch's campaign finance reports, which have been at issue since just before the 2004 general election. Branch's Green Party challenger, Glenn L. Ross, had tried to have state election officials remove her from the Nov. 2, 2004, ballot because she had not filed a finance report since August 2003 and owed $1,250 in late fees.

The board decided in October that Branch could remain on the ballot.

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

State elections officials say candidates rarely can be held responsible for the reporting lapses of their campaign committees. They contend that the only people who are liable for delinquent filings are a campaign committee's chairman or treasurer. Candidates cannot serve as their own treasurers.

Ross filed a lawsuit against the state board in November to void Branch's election. Although Ross ultimately lost the case, the state Court of Appeals ruled in June that his case had merit but that it had to reject the lawsuit because of technicalities.

Branch has blamed Conteh and computer glitches for the reporting problems. Earlier this month, she said she had repeatedly tried to find Conteh to ask him why he had not followed the law. Branch said Conteh betrayed her and EDO leaders who she said were grooming him for future political office.

"We helped him to get where he wanted to go," Branch said. "He was interested in politics. We ran him on a ticket."

Silverman said Conteh has no criminal record and has never been accused of stealing money from any of the dozens of campaigns he has helped.

"He had expected the people he had been loyal to to tell the truth," Silverman said. Instead, he added, "they threw him under the bus."

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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