Some companies with interests in Maryland have found a new way to show support for Gov. Martin O'Malley: They're contributing tens of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Governors Association.
Last December, O'Malley took the helm of the DGA, where as chairman he is charged with raising large sums to elect Democratic governors nationwide. Under his leadership, the group raised a record $11 million during the first six months of this year — including donations from Exelon Corp. and more than a dozen other companies with issues before Maryland lawmakers or regulators, according to federal records.
Some government watchdogs say such donations — which are not subject to government limits on campaign giving and range as high as $250,000 — are troubling.
"Frankly, it sends a signal to other donors who want O'Malley help. Even if it is not 'pay to play,' it is going to give [donors] hope that they can influence him," said James Browning, a regional director of Common Cause.
O'Malley says there is no connection between DGA donations and his decisions as governor.
"What we have to always do is separate the campaign side from the governing side, which is what I've done," O'Malley said. "Does this contribution affect my judgment in making decisions in the interest of the people of Maryland? The answer is no."
A Baltimore Sun analysis of DGA contribution records shows:
•Energy Answers International, which is building a waste-to-energy plant in Baltimore, contributed $100,000 to the DGA during the period. The check is dated the day O'Malley announced he would sign into law a bill potentially worth millions to the company that allows garbage incineration to be counted as a renewable energy source.
•Exelon Corp., the Chicago-based firm seeking state approval to merge with Constellation Energy Group, gave $250,000 to the DGA during the six months. The amount is 10 times more than Exelon had ever previously contributed to the DGA.
•A Maryland-based energy company that wants to build a natural gas-fired power plant in Charles County gave $100,000 to the DGA, it's first contribution to the group. The company, Competitive Power Ventures, had been pressing for Maryland's Public Service Commission to order utilities to seek proposals for a new plant. The PSC did that in October.
•Two Maryland-based companies that want to design or build a wind farm off Ocean City donated a combined $35,000 during the six months. Another offshore wind company gave $50,000. A bill that would boost the development of offshore wind farms is expected to be a top priority of the governor during the General Assembly session that begins in January.
Browning said he was particularly concerned by the $100,000 donation from Energy Answers, given the day that O'Malley announced he would sign legislation beneficial to the company.
"The timing of the contribution suggests that he's fundraising with one hand and signing bills with the other," Browning said. "It is a dog whistle to other donors."
Money donated to the DGA is used primarily to support the election campaigns of Democratic governors. O'Malley, who is serving his second term as Maryland governor, by law cannot run for a third, so the money won't directly help him. Nevertheless, the robust fundraising numbers bolster his growing national reputation. When O'Malley leaves office in 2014, many political observers believe he might consider running for a seat in the U.S. Senate or even a presidential campaign.
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The DGA says the $11 million raised during the first half of 2011 is a record for this period in a four-year election cycle. Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report, said O'Malley's demonstrated ability to raise money on a national stage "cements his credentials" as a viable candidate for higher office.
Extra cash at the DGA also has enabled O'Malley to expand the organization's mission. For example, this fall he poured $150,000 into a union-backed referendum in Ohio, a rare example of the organization funding a campaign not directly connected to a gubernatorial contest.
Unlike contributions to specific election campaigns, there is no state or federal limit on the amount that an individual or a company can give to a group such as the DGA (or its counterpart, the Republican Governors Association). In Maryland, by way of contrast, donors can give no more than $4,000 to a candidate during a four-year cycle.
"The DGA and the RGA are in the wild, wild West of campaign finance," said Brian J. Gaines, a professor at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. "Both can rake in huge contributions, even though governors are obviously in a clear position to engage in quid pro quos with donors."