Sky's limit to sponsor Md. events

Donors can give as much as they like to pay for festivities

August 28, 2008|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,david.nitkin@baltsun.com

DENVER - An actor from The Wire stood next to Maryland's comptroller for two hours, shaking hands with party guests. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. put his arm around Maryland's attorney general at a Cajun restaurant filled with Marylanders and said his father would be proud.

The Democratic National Convention is a place for ambitious politicians to punctuate their prominence by hosting evening receptions with open bars and savory appetizers, or a breakfast for scores of their friends. Big-name guests are part of the draw.

To pay for them, politicians turn to lobbyists, labor unions and, commonly, regulated industries doing business in the state - raising thousands of dollars outside the typical limits of campaign finance donations.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Aug. 28 editions of The Baltimore Sun misidentified the source of funding for a Democratic convention party in Denver co-hosted by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. The financing came from John Delaney, chief executive officer of CapitalSource, and not from the company itself. THE BALTIMORE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

Gov. Martin O'Malley and other state politicians who wanted their names attached to a celebration were told by Maryland Democratic officials to find donors who would give roughly $20,000 to the state party.

There was no shortage of takers.

With a single phone call, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler took care of the funding for his party Tuesday night at Gumbo's, a Louisiana-style restaurant in downtown Denver. John K. Delaney, CEO of commercial lender CapitalSource Inc., picked up the entire cost.

Gansler said Delaney volunteered to make the contribution because of their long-standing friendship. "We go skiing together," Gansler said. "We vacation together."

The state party had a goal of raising $500,000 for events at the Denver convention, executive director Quincy Gamble said. The largest donor: Constellation Energy, which has been in protracted battles with state regulators over the price it can charge for electricity in Maryland.

State campaign finance law places a $4,000 limit on donations to individual campaigns. But there is no such limit on donations to party central committees used for administrative expenses, so companies and lobbyists can give as much as they like to the party to be used on festivities.

Federal ethics laws preclude members of Congress from taking part in such events.

Gansler asserted that the large contributions for the parties carry less influence than individual donations to politicians because "the ultimate benefactor of that money is the Democratic Party."

But the system also cloaks accountability. When the Democratic Party files its required revenue and expense reports, there will be no accounting that a $20,000 donation from CapitalSource was solicited by Gansler.

Today's breakfast for the Maryland delegation comes courtesy of Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, a young leader who presumably wants a long career after term limits force him from his current office.

Ulman said his finance director raised the $20,000 from the WolfBlock LLP law firm, Aetna insurance and Enterprise Rent-a-Car. WolfBlock has a government affairs practice, Ulman said, and Aetna is the county's health insurance provider and, through a foundation, a participant in the Healthy Howard effort to provide coverage for the uninsured.

"My philosophy on campaign finance is, when things are disclosed, voters get to make educated decisions," Ulman said. "If the state party wants to disclose [the source of donations] even further, that would certainly be fine with me."

The breakfasts and late-night parties become something of a brag-fest to see who can get the prime slots and the most famous guests.

When Comptroller Peter Franchot was organizing his party, he made sure to promote a special guest: actor Wendell Pierce, who played Detective William "Bunk" Moreland in the Baltimore-based HBO series The Wire.

Moreland was a big hit with guests such as former Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, who pumped the actor's hand in a receiving line. "I worked in Billy Murphy's law firm," Curry gushed, making a connection based on a subplot in the show. "That episode was fantastic."

Like events such as the Maryland Association of Counties annual summer meeting in Ocean City, the conventions allow lobbyists and other special interests to mingle with politicians in intimate, casual and friendly settings away from the public's view.

Maryland lobbyists in Denver this week include Joel Rozner and Josh White of Rifkin Livingston Levitan & Silver; David Carroll of Capital Strategies and Sean Looney of Comcast.

"My first question when I hear this is, why wasn't I invited?" said Ryan O'Donnell, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, which tracks the influence of money in politics.

O'Donnell said the system seemed similar to the practice of bundling, where supporters gather checks from donors and present them to candidates en masse. Greater disclosure of bundling is needed, he said.

"Big money gets into the system in any number of ways, and this is just another way," O'Donnell said.

Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a veteran of political conventions since 1984, acknowledged the potential for appearance problems.

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