Lobbyist is part of legislative fundraiser

Levitan's ticket sales raise question of ethics

General Assembly

February 17, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

Amid public concern about the coziness between lawmakers and lobbyists, a high-powered Annapolis lobbyist is involved in -- and selling sponsorship tickets to -- an annual fundraising show featuring state legislators.

A letter soliciting contributions for the annual Legislative Follies directs state lawmakers and others to send checks ranging from $250 to $3,000 to the Thomas Hunter Lowe Scholarship Fund Inc. in care of Laurence Levitan.

Levitan is a former state lawmaker and registered lobbyist who represents 48 clients, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Bank of America, the Laurel Racing Association and Pepco Holdings Inc., according to fillings with the Maryland State Ethics Commission.

Although the Follies is a charitable event -- the proceeds go to a Washington College scholarship program named for a former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates -- some observers have questioned whether a state lobbyist should be involved in the fundraising for a General Assembly tradition.

"I think it's a matter that the legislature should address and should question whether they wish to permit lobbyists to participate in that activity," said Julian L. Lapides, chairman of the Maryland State Ethics Commission.

Levitan said he has been involved with the Follies from its inception and that he was just trying to help.

"I was just serving as the conduit for depositing the funds," he said. "If it can't be done, somebody else will do it."

Annapolis has always been a revolving door. Political activists run for office. Officials leave, or are forced out, and later earn a living as lobbyists.

But the laws governing lobbyist behavior, expanded in 2001 after a spate of violations led to the convictions of two powerful Annapolis figures, restrict the fundraising and charitable activities of those registered.

A lobbyist may not, according to the Maryland Code, "engage in any charitable fund-raising activity at the request of an official or employee, including soliciting, transmitting the solicitation of, or transmitting a charitable contribution."

Scheduled this year for March 28 at St. John's College, the Legislative Follies is a Maryland General Assembly tradition, marked by slapstick and mostly mediocre singing. It is a celebration of Annapolis politicians, an exercise in self-roasting, in which the cast and audience are composed primarily of lawmakers, their staffs and kin.

Levitan, who served in the state Senate for nearly two decades and in the House of Delegates before that, is vice chairman of the board of the Thomas Hunter Lowe Scholarship Fund, a non-profit that receives Follies proceeds. The fund's office is housed in the Lowe House Office Building.

The Feb. 7 letter addressed to "Friends of the Legislative Follies" asks that checks be mailed to Levitan at his lobbying firm: Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver, LLC. Lawrence A. LaMotte, chairman of the board of the fund, authored the letter.

LaMotte, who served in the House of Delegates from 1982 to 1994, said that he asked Levitan to handle the sponsorship money this year for the first time and that he does not see any potential for conflict.

"His office is virtually across the street from the bank; it just seemed a lot more easy for him to handle it than me or anyone else," LaMotte said. "It was totally a result of convenience."

In the past, the checks went to an aide in the House of Delegates offices, LaMotte said.

The Follies, which started in 1976, used to be run out of the House of Delegates, according to Barbara Oakes, the House administrator. Oakes said that since delegates cannot solicit money by law, the fund board took over.

"We made a decision to have the entire organization run by former legislators so that legislators did not handle money, legislators did not pay bills," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Brave, a Montgomery County Democrat. "Legislators wrote scripts and acted badly."

The board includes six former state lawmakers, two of whom are registered lobbyists, according to filings with the State Ethics Commission. Levitan is one; the other is William Rickman Jr., who represents only the Ocean Downs Racetrack and Allegany Racing Association.

LaMotte said he registered as a lobbyist a few weeks ago to represent South River Consulting, a Baltimore energy firm.

Retired District Judge Gerald F. Devlin, a fund board member, said it was probably unwise to put Levitan in the position of depositing Follies checks.

"I think it's probably [that] someone didn't think about it," he said. "I'm sure they can correct this."

Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause in Washington, said that legalities aside, such links between lobbyists and lawmakers can create the appearance of impropriety.

"Does this have the potential to make this guy more influential? Put him closer to legislators? Yes," she said. "But given that he's a former lawmaker, he's probably in that club to begin with."

Levitan says that he has always been a Follies fan and participant, and that lobbyists were frequently featured performers in skits. Jennifer Hafner, the organization's deputy director of research and student outreach, said Levitan even donated 13 videotapes of past shows to the Maryland State Archives.


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