Raising money raises doubts

Propriety of events prompts questions as lawmakers meet

General Assembly -- Special Session

October 29, 2007|By James Drew | James Drew,SUN REPORTER

If the General Assembly's special session beginning today were to last 30 days, it would coincide with at least 10 lawmakers' fundraisers -- events that are forbidden during regular sessions.

For a decade, Maryland has banned state officials from holding fundraisers during the 90-day sessions that begin in January. The goal, backers say, is to curb the appearance of impropriety by stopping lawmakers from soliciting campaign contributions while voting on legislation that could affect their donors.

But holding fundraisers during special sessions is legal. Even one statewide officeholder who would normally be prohibited from doing so, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, has a fundraiser planned -- on Nov. 8.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's A section misreported the composition of the district of Maryland Del. Warren E. Miller. He represents District 9A, which covers western Howard County.
THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

One of the 10 state lawmakers, Del. James E. Proctor Jr., has his event planned for Nov. 7 at the Occidental Restaurant, around the corner from the White House, with tickets at $150, $250 and $500. Proctor said he began planning it in August, long before the special session was called.

He said holding the event during the special session is no different from holding it a week before or a week after it's over. And it's being held at a Washington restaurant because the special guest, D.C. City Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, is his first cousin.

"If we did not do these things like fundraisers, only the millionaires would be in office," said Proctor, who represents Prince George's and Calvert counties.

Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause, a watchdog group, said the different rules for fundraising are another reason why Maryland should adopt public financing of elections.

"What should be prohibited is people raising money from lobbyists or interests that have direct business before the General Assembly during the special session; anyone who has their hand out on the budget, which I am sure is a lot of interests. We would hope legislators would show some self-control and not try to take advantage of this. It may be legal, but is it in the best interests of Marylanders?" Boyle said.

In addition to Proctor, two other key Democratic legislators, Del. Anne R. Kaiser of Montgomery County and Sen. John C. Astle of Anne Arundel County, have fundraisers scheduled that could coincide with the special session. Three Republicans and four other Democrats do, too.

Kaiser, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, is set to raise money tomorrow in Olney. She said it's unclear whether one of her "special guests," Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the committee's chairwoman, will attend because of the special session.

Astle, vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has a Nov. 9 fundraiser, co-hosted by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Astle said he had arranged his fundraiser months in advance to coincide with the 25th anniversary of his election to the legislature, but he acknowledged that the timing and setting -- at the Calvert House near the State House -- likely would boost attendance.

Although it is legal to raise campaign dollars during a special session, the legislature's ethics counsel, William G. Somerville, has reminded legislators that they are "expected to avoid even the appearance of impropriety." He urged legislators in an Oct. 3 memo not to schedule fundraisers "for the express purpose of coinciding with a special session."

Legislators with events scheduled during the special session said they have not done so.

Maryland is among 28 states that put restrictions on contributions during legislative sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least five states -- Alaska, Connecticut, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington -- also prohibit fundraising during special sessions.

Kaiser said she checked the rules "very carefully" before arranging for her fundraiser.

"The rules have been [that] one can hold a fundraiser during a special session because otherwise, when could you hold an event? I certainly did not schedule this to coincide with a special session," she said.

Although O'Malley had talked publicly for months about ordering a special session, he did not release the date until Oct. 15 -- 10 days after Kaiser said her invitations were mailed.

Del. Warren E. Miller, who has a fundraiser scheduled for Thursday in Marriottsville, said the special session has cost him at least one contribution.

"I got a call from one of the association groups that lobbies, and they said in their voice mail, `Normally, we would give you a contribution, but we might have an issue during the special session, and we don't want to look improper. So we'll wait until the session is out,'" said Delegate Miller, a Republican who represents Carroll and Howard counties.

He said he doesn't see a need for the legislature to ban fundraisers during special sessions.

"There is a very small segment of groups that lobby that have a stakeholder position during a special session," he said.

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