Stewart Bainum Jr., chairman of the Rockville-based Choice Hotels International, is a Democratic money machine. The former Maryland state lawmaker raised an estimated $2.5 million at his Chevy Chase home for President Obama in 2012. He has directly contributed hundreds of thousands more to the party and to Maryland Democrats such as Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Rep. Steny Hoyer and Gov. Martin O’Malley.
In that context, the $17,000 that Bainum, his wife, Sandra, Choice International and three Choice business partners have contributed to County Executive Isiah Leggett’s re-election campaign this year seems like pocket change.
But it follows a $3.1 million boost the county gave to Choice in 2012 through an economic-development grant. The money, approved by the County Council at Leggett’s request, smoothed the path for the relocation of Choice’s corporate headquarters from Silver Spring to downtown Rockville. It also helped the Reston-based Duball LLC with construction — now underway — of apartments and a Cambria Suites Hotel, a Choice brand. The city of Rockville contributed about $900,000 to the package.
Leggett estimated at the time that the development would generate $10.2 million in tax revenue for the county over the next 10 years, in addition to several hundred jobs.
The grant surfaced briefly in last week’s debate between Leggett and his challengers ahead of the June 24 Democratic primary, Council member Phil Andrews and former county executive Doug Duncan.
Andrews (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg) was part of a unanimous council vote for the package. But he said the $17,000 in donations illustrates why the county needs a publicly financed system of elections. He has sponsored such a bill in the council that will be taken up later this year.
“It’s the county executive who is the person in the county responsible for negotiating deals on behalf of the public,” said Andrews, who does not accept contributions from real estate interests.
Leggett, he said, has “hit up campaign contributors who have received economic development grants from the county like Choice Hotels and its affiliates. I would never do that. I think it’s unethical.”
Leggett said no laws were broken and that there would be an ethical conflict if he only took money from one particular interest group. His campaign finance reports show he receives “monies from across the board.” As of May 20, Leggett had slightly over $1 million in the bank, from a range of sources.
In an interview after the debate, Andrews said the development grant made it possible for Leggett to effectively tell Bainum and Choice: “‘Hey we are running for reelection, and you did pretty well by us.’ I think that happened here, sure.”
Bainum has helped Leggett before. Contribution records show he hosted a fundraiser for Leggett during his 2006 campaign and that Choice contributed $2,500.
But the $17,000 is far beyond anything the Bainums or Choice have directly contributed in the past. Three of the donations — totaling $12,000 — came on May 14, according to campaign reports. City Market Hotel Development, Mainstay Suites and CS Hotel 30W46th LLC all used the same Raleigh, N.C., address of Concord Hospitality, which operates hotels under the Choice brand.
May 14 was also the date of a fundraiser at the Potomac home of IT entrepreneur Frank Islam that brought in an estimated $250,000 for Leggett. Bainum was a member of the host committee.
Neither Leggett, Bainum nor Choice returned phone messages this week.
Leggett campaign manager Scott Goldberg, said there was no quid pro quo.
“Ike and Stewart Bainum have been friends for probably over 30 years,” Goldberg said. “The Bainums have supported Ike since he first ran for County Council in 1985.” He said the contributions the Andrews questioned have come “a half-decade after any decisions were made” regarding the corporate relocation and hotel project.
“I would say that the county executive is a man of integrity and with 100 percent certainty there was no quid pro quo that Mr. Andrews suggested.”