Don't break, circumvent

October 10, 2007

Somebody didn't talk to the right people.

At least that's the only conclusion to draw from the case of James G. Robinson, the Baltimore businessman and Hollywood producer, who recently agreed to pay $119,000 in fines for exceeding state campaign contribution limits.

Mr. Robinson's violations were too obvious to miss: He used 20 corporations in which he is the only stockholder to give big money in the last election cycle to candidates Martin O'Malley, Anthony G. Brown and Peter Franchot.

Under Maryland law, a person or corporation can give no more than $4,000 to any one campaign or $10,000 in aggregate. Giving through identically owned companies doesn't fool anyone - and that's probably why State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh filed only civil citations in the case. Criminal prosecution would have required knowledge of campaign finance laws that Mr. Robinson clearly didn't have.

Any political insider with a lick of sense could have told Mr. Robinson that there are much easier - and, incredibly, legal - ways to bypass the state's leaky campaign finance laws. The easiest is to give through limited liability corporations or partnerships. LLCs have become so common - they're often used to own individual properties - that it should have been simple enough to do.

One could, for instance, give $40,000 to a candidate simply by funneling it through 10 LLCs. Common ownership of the LLCs wouldn't matter. In fact, it's possible to keep LLC ownership secret - another bonus for crafty campaign donors.

Too much red tape? No problem. You can also give through plain old corporations, as long as you have slightly different shared ownership for each - a cousin as part owner of one, or your spouse with another. See? Circumventing the law is really quite easy.

If you assume state lawmakers are horrified by these gaping loopholes in the state campaign finance laws, you're just as ill-informed as Mr. Robinson. Bills to correct the problem quietly died in committee this year. Most legislators are perfectly content with the status quo. There are, after all, millions of dollars at stake.

So while we applaud Mr. Rohrbaugh for catching Mr. Robinson and several other campaign finance violators, we have to wonder how much good it does - at least until Annapolis cleans up its act.

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