High rate of generosity

Under fire for energy costs, Constellation a big donor in Annapolis

March 28, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE, ANDREW A. GREEN AND KELLY BREWINGTON | JOHN FRITZE, ANDREW A. GREEN AND KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTERS

As they work to mitigate an expected 72 percent spike in energy bills, Annapolis officials must confront a company that has become among the most generous contributors to political campaigns in Maryland.

Constellation Energy Group, the parent company of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., together with its top executives, contributed at least $225,000 to lawmakers, gubernatorial candidates and local officials since 2003 and has spread its money liberally to both political parties.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - who has said a 72 percent increase "will not stand" but has offered no plan for reducing rates - received at least $33,000 from the energy utility. One of his most vocal critics on the issue, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, has taken an almost equal amount, at least $32,750.

Though members of both parties have tried to direct blame for the expected rate increase across the aisle, Democrats and Republicans have been equally willing to take Constellation's campaign money, an analysis by The Sun shows. The state Democratic Party received $33,800; the Republicans got $25,100.

"These guys play hardball, and they know how to play it well," said Brad Heavner, executive director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. "I don't think anyone has Annapolis wired as well as Constellation Energy does. They're everywhere."

Constellation's political action committee and direct business contributions alone totaled more than $171,000 for the election cycle, which began Jan. 1, 2003, placing it among the most prolific givers along with the real estate, medical and banking industries.

Candidates who received the money argue it has no sway over how they have approached the issue. Electric bills could increase 72 percent this summer as a cap on energy rate increases in place since 1999 is lifted. That cap was put in place to soften the blow to consumers as the state's energy markets were deregulated.

Ehrlich said the contributions he has received from Constellation mean "nothing" in how he has managed the electricity debate.

"How can it be significant if the money is that balanced across the board?" said the governor, referring to how the campaign money was given to both parties. "You could find the same [level of contributions] for any major business across the state of Maryland."

A statement from the O'Malley campaign noted that the mayor has for weeks been calling on the state's Public Service Commission to take a more active role in deflating the increases.

"Past contributions have not and will not prevent Martin O'Malley from taking positions that best represent the interest of Maryland's citizens," the statement read.

Many candidates who received money from the company said the likely outcry from energy consumers that would follow huge rate increases far outweighs the impact of campaign contributions.

Legislators and local officials received less than gubernatorial candidates, but they still collected large donations. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch got $6,000 apiece. Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, received $3,350, and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. received $5,600.

Busch said the $6,000 he has received in Constellation donations will not stop him from taking action to stop the rate increases or to hold up the merger any more than contributions the horse racing industry gave him years ago stopped him from blocking slot machine gambling.

Given the widespread support for a House bill that would give the legislature veto power over a merger between Constellation and a Florida power company, the contributions are not affecting others' thinking, either, Busch said.

"The bill came out of committee, 18-3. I'm sure there are numerous people in that committee that voted for that bill who got money from Constellation Energy," Busch said. "You've got to do what's right."

At least one candidate, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, said he feels the contributions are inappropriate. Duncan has returned his Constellation donations - about $3,205 - and is calling on his opponents, O'Malley and Ehrlich, to do the same.

"This is going to be not just a 2006 issue. It's going to be an issue that's going to be with us for some time," Duncan said. "Customers need to know that their top elected officials are going to look after their interests and not the special interests."

Pepco, the company that supplies power to Montgomery County, has contributed at least $1,750 to Duncan's campaign. A Duncan spokeswoman said the candidate does not intend to return that money, though the company has also proposed rate increases.

For their part, Constellation energy officials characterized the contributions as an effort to educate policymakers - not to influence the debate.

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