Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold's campaign reaped an estimated $100,000 at a fundraiser hosted by a wealthy supporter four days before the passage of a county bill that granted the supporter a break on a private 18-hole golf course he is building on property he owns in Harwood.
A Leopold administration official testified in support of the bill just before the County Council's unanimous vote Dec. 3 to waive a requirement that Albert Lord, chairman of student loan magnet Sallie Mae, build a mile-long road to his proposed $15 million clubhouse. The bill's approval saved him hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Leopold said the fundraiser - the sixth since he took office one year ago - was "not inappropriate" and that donations to him are being made in the interest of "good government."
"I have made it clear again and again that a contribution doesn't translate into a quid pro quo," Leopold said. "The fact that this is a winning campaign, and I've had a very strong performance in my first year, that has helped raise money."
He said he has accepted thousands of dollars from developers, but his administration has cracked down on illegal building and environmental violations.
Lord, an Annapolis resident, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Some council members and political observers, however, said the timing raised questions about a conflict of interest.
"Maybe it's great for the community. Maybe it has no opposition. Maybe is the best thing to hit Anne Arundel County," said Mary Boyle, a national spokeswoman for the watchdog group Common Cause, "but a reasonable person would ask: Is this the result of generous campaign donation or is this standing on its own merits?"
Dan Nataf, a political science professor at Anne Arundel Community College, said the "appearance is a liability," given that Leopold campaigned last year on the pledge of being independent-minded and not part of an "old-boy" network of special interests.
Nataf said Leopold's involvement gives "the appearance of an excessive nod in favor of the interest giving that much money."
Lord has spent three years assembling 335 acres in southern Anne Arundel to build Anne Arundell Mannor, a private golf course for him and 100 friends. Two of the holes on the par-72, 7,100-yard course were playable last month, and the project, which could be completed by Christmas 2008, will include on-site lodging. The cost is expected to exceed $30 million.
Last year, county zoning officials from the administration of Leopold's predecessor, Janet S. Owens, ordered Lord to build the mile-long access road to take congestion off a historic two-lane road in Anne Arundel's pristine farm country.
The councilman representing Harwood, Republican Edward R. Reilly, introduced a bill to lift that burden, saying that the road was not needed because of the course's limited membership and that building it would result in the unnecessary destruction of trees and habitat.
"I knew there would need to be a legislative fix," said Reilly, who said he began work on his legislation as early as June.
The community organization representing Harwood also favored the bill, and senior Leopold officials testified before the council this fall that the administration supported the bill for similar reasons. The weight of the county executive is often critical in determining a bill's fate.
Reilly said the perception of a conflict of interest with the recent fundraiser lacked merit.
"I don't think they are related at all," he said of the bill's passage and the fundraiser.
Lord attended a fundraiser for Leopold in September at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, where the county executive raised at least $100,000. Each of the 25 to 30 participants - mostly developers - was asked to contribute $4,000.
The fundraiser that Lord hosted Nov. 29 at his antebellum red-brick home where Lord is building the golf course drew an estimated 30 to 40 people, Leopold said. He declined to say who attended other than that it was "a mix" of people from Anne Arundel County and elsewhere. Some have attended previous fundraisers, he said, and contributions ranged from $250 to the state maximum, $4,000.
Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat who is drafting an ethics reform bill, said: "Most people would probably agree that we should not be raising money from individuals at the same time legislation in which such individuals have a material financial interest is being considered. I believe the state prohibits fundraising by the governor, senators and delegates during the General Assembly for this very reason."
Council members said yesterday that despite not knowing previously about the recent fundraiser, they stand by their votes.
Still, Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican, said of Leopold, "He is going to have to answer how he conducts his business."