February 7

IT WAS curious enough when Maryland’s State Board of Elections decided in December that Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown’s gubernatorial campaign could, in effect, ignore state rules barring fundraising by state officials while the General Assembly is in session. It decreed that Brown’s running mate and proxy, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D), could go right on raking in the cash. Now it turns out that what seemed merely curious was truly ludicrous: The members of the Board of Elections did not make the decision; their staff did, much to the surprise and consternation of some board members.

As recounted by The Post’s Fredrick Kunkle, at least two members of the elections board, a Republican and a Democrat, were caught off guard by the staff’s ruling, which was presented to board members as a done deal just before it was made public.

The decision makes a mockery of the prohibition against fundraising by state officials while the legislature is in session — a rule intended to minimize the appearance that special interests can bribe lawmakers at the very moment they are writing new laws or changing old ones. (Of course, there is nothing to stop the cash from flowing from deep-pocketed lobbies to lawmakers the rest of the year, but that’s another matter.)

The ruling rests on the fiction that Mr. Ulman, Mr. Brown’s hand-picked candidate for lieutenant governor, is somehow a separate actor whose campaign is not coordinated with Mr. Brown’s. Because Mr. Ulman is technically a local official, the board said he is not covered by the ban on fundraising during the legislative session. Both Mr. Brown and Mr. Ulman are Democrats, but the ruling applies equally to Republican candidates.

About 10 days into the legislative session in January, Mr. Brown’s campaign refused to answer questions about whether his running mate was continuing to collect campaign cash. No state law requires that the information be made public in real time, so for the time being, the Brown ticket’s fundraising activities are shrouded in mystery.

Twenty-nine states, including Maryland, restrict the giving and receiving of campaign contributions during legislative sessions. The trouble with the board of elections ruling is twofold: First, the rule is stripped of meaning if a candidate who has teamed up with a prominent statewide official, and in most respects is his proxy, can flout the prohibition. Second, in this case it badly tilts the playing field in the Democratic primary since the campaign of Mr. Brown’s chief rival for the nomination, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, enjoys no such loophole. Mr. Gansler’s running mate, Del. Jolene Ivey of Prince George’s County, is a state official and thus barred from raising money during the legislative session.

Mr. Gansler’s allies have filed suit to challenge the ruling. Perhaps in the meantime, members of the elections board can intervene to suspend or reverse the ruling made in their name by staffers. Common sense suggests it contravenes the spirit of the campaign finance law. Let the courts decide whether it also violates the letter.