Improper fundraising alleged

Lawmakers say aide to Hollinger offered illicit payback deal

July 25, 2006|By SUMATHI REDDY AND JOHN FRITZE | SUMATHI REDDY AND JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTERS

A campaign consultant for state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, who is running for Congress, solicited donations from at least two General Assembly members with the promise of contributions from her state committee in exchange, two lawmakers said yesterday.

Federal law prohibits congressional candidates who are state officials from transferring campaign money from their local accounts to their federal accounts. When a candidate receives a contribution to a federal account and reimburses the contributor from a separate state account, it is akin to a transfer, the Federal Election Commission has said in an advisory opinion.

Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who is running in an eight-way primary for the 3rd Congressional District seat, denied directing campaign staff to offer money from her state account in exchange for a donation to her federal account - or making such offers herself.

On a voice mail message left for one of the legislators, who asked to remain anonymous, a woman identifies herself as a member of the Hollinger campaign and asks for a contribution from "your state account."

"Paula will certainly send you money from her state account if need be," the woman says on the message, which was played for The Sun yesterday. The lawmaker who received the message did not return the campaign's call, according to the legislator.

The voice mail message was left by a woman named "Maureen" who left a phone number registered to O'Connor Public Relations Associates. The company was paid $9,150 in "public relations consulting fees," according to Hollinger's most recent congressional campaign finance filing. Hollinger said Maureen O'Connor managed her 1994 Senate campaign.

Hollinger said O'Connor does not typically make fundraising calls. She said many lawmakers are supporting her candidacy because they agree with her on the issues, not because of an offer of campaign cash.

"I think that you have somebody who was doing a call who has not done calls before who maybe took it upon herself," Hollinger said. "I had nothing to do with the calls."

O'Connor could not be reached for comment.

Hollinger said that 23 of her colleagues in the General Assembly have contributed to her federal campaign. Meanwhile, she said, her state fund has made contributions to just four of those legislators - not because of their contributions but because she supports them, she said.

Another four lawmakers contacted yesterday said they made contributions to Hollinger's campaign because they supported her work and that they did not expect a donation in return or have such a discussion with anyone. Federal law allows state campaign committees to donate up to $1,000 to a federal race.

One General Assembly member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a Hollinger campaign aide called in late June and said it was legal to donate up to $1,000 from a state campaign. The aide said Hollinger's state campaign would reciprocate with a $1,500 to $2,000 contribution, the lawmaker said.

"It didn't feel right to me," the legislator said.

In 1996, the FEC said in an advisory opinion that such transfers of money between state and federal accounts is "impermissible."

At best, exchanging contributions is a loophole to get around rules against direct transfers, said Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

"This doesn't smell good; it seems to be ethically wrong," said Walton. "It is tantamount to money laundering."

Hollinger said she did not know how much money her state committee gave to the four Democratic lawmakers she identified as donors to her federal campaign.

Baltimore County Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier said she contributed to Hollinger's congressional campaign but denied receiving a transfer back. Montgomery County Del. Adrienne A. Mandel said that she and Hollinger have always supported each other.

Montgomery County Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez said there was no "quid for pro." Sen. Verna L. Jones of Baltimore said Hollinger pledged to support her financially "well before" she made her donation.

Eight candidates are running for the seat of Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is running for U.S. Senate.

In the second-quarter federal filings released July 15, Hollinger came in second in fundraising, taking in $193,488 with $271,028 on hand. A public disclosure of Hollinger's state committee's financial activity isn't due until Aug. 15.

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com john.fritze@baltsun.com

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