Kamenetz and developer funding campaign chest

Common Cause says slate contributions raise questions

May 20, 2014|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and a prominent developer are funding a campaign chest that can be used to back candidates they support — even as the developer, Caves Valley Partners, is awaiting county approvals to proceed with major projects.

Kamenetz's campaign has transferred more than $100,000 to A Better Baltimore County, according to the latest campaign finance report. The fund's other seven donors, which all have ties to Caves Valley Partners, contributed $23,000 to the political fund founded by the county executive.

Caves Valley is developing the high-profile Towson Row project— a $300 million development of stores, offices and homes off York Road that Kamenetz has said will be "an urban centerpiece." Several county agencies must review the firm's plans and have the authority to approve or reject them. Last year, Caves Valley was given a no-bid lease for a desirable county property on Washington Avenue that will become part of Towson Row.

With no significant opposition in his bid for re-election, Kamenetz is able to use his campaign money to help others. A Better Baltimore County is a slate fund that can channel unlimited amounts of money to affiliated candidates. So far, the fund lists as an affiliated candidate Jon Herbst, a Democrat who is challenging County Councilwoman Vicki Almond in the June 24 Democratic primary. Kamenetz has endorsed Herbst.

A government watchdog group said Caves Valley's contributions to a Kamenetz slate, while not a violation of state ethics laws, is cause for concern.

"The voters need to sit up and pay attention," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. "Certainly, if the developers and the county executive are working so very closely ... they have an agenda, and the voters have to decide whether that's the agenda they want to see or not."

Kamenetz declined to comment about the slate or Caves Valley's contributions. "I'm really not going to discuss campaign strategy with a reporter," he said.

Don Mohler, Kamenetz's chief of staff, also declined to discuss Caves Valley's contributions, but said the county executive has relationships with developers in the same way he does with other constituencies, such as community associations, land preservationists and labor unions.

"When you're a county executive, you better be interacting and having relationships with every constituent in your district," Mohler said. "At the end of the day as the county executive, you always do what you believe is in the best interest of the 823,000 people in Baltimore County."

Kamenetz and two political allies, then-Councilman Vince Gardina and Councilman John Olszewski Sr., set up the slate account four years ago. The other two men said they are no longer involved. Ethan Hunt, an aide to Kamenetz, is listed as the fund's chairman.

John Bullock, a political science professor at Towson University, said the county's executive's political relationship with Caves Valley shows that development is a high priority for Kamenetz. "What it demonstrates is that development interests are huge," Bullock said.

Caves Valley officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Almond has rankled both Kamenetz and Caves Valley officials with her positions. She has questioned Kamenetz's proposals and legal tactics on labor issues, as well as his administration's plan to lease the Washington Avenue site to Caves Valley. She supported plans of a Caves Valley competitor, Greenberg Gibbons, in its successful bid to build Foundry Row, which is in her district in Owings Mills. Kamenetz did not oppose Foundry Row.

Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, said she is not surprised that Kamenetz and Caves Valley are supporting her challenger. She said Caves Valley lobbied her in 2012 to oppose rezoning the former Solo Cup plant where Foundry Row will be built. Construction of the shopping center is to begin this summer.

Caves Valley officials told her that competition from Foundry Row could hurt their interests, she said.

"Caves Valley supported me in the last election, and I guess they thought I would do what they wanted me to do, and I didn't," Almond said.

Herbst, meanwhile, is a member of the county planning board, which advises the County Council on development issues. He would be required to give up his seat if he wins election to the council.

Herbst declined to comment for this article. He ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2010 as a Republican, but has since switched parties.

In Maryland, slate funds are allowed to transfer unlimited amounts of money to candidates who are affiliated members. They have been criticized as lacking transparency. Under state law, they must list affiliated candidates but do not have to disclose which candidate a specific expenditure benefits.

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