After the Elections, A Campaign To Celebrate

By John Wagner and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 8, 2006

After raising record sums to win high office, the region's politicians are preparing to party -- and again looking for someone to pick up the costs.

Maryland Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley (D) is asking corporations and well-heeled residents for as much as $25,000 each to help throw a bash in Baltimore on the night of his inauguration next month. Incoming Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) is doing much the same in the District.

And Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) sought contributions of $50,000 each from businesses to help pay for a glitzy ball thrown Monday night after he was sworn in for a second term. Entertainers clad in red, white and blue on stilts greeted guests, who were treated to a Temptations cover band and a woman silently holding acrobatic poses on a raised platform.

The politicians say that the private help makes it easier for the public to join the celebrations, defraying costs and keeping admission prices reasonable. O'Malley, for instance, will charge $75 -- $25 less than his Republican predecessor four years ago -- for a black-tie-optional affair Jan. 17, with multiple bands and choirs. And Fenty's Jan. 2 ball, to which he is planning to invite roughly 30,000 people, will be free.

But government watchdog groups frown upon seeking large contributions from private donors.

"This is another opportunity for corporations and other special interests to cozy up to the incoming governor," said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, when told of O'Malley's solicitations. "It raises the age-old question: Is someone contributing $25,000 to Martin O'Malley's swearing-in bash to buy influence?"

A spokesman for O'Malley, who, during the campaign, accused Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) of being beholden to special interests, brushed off that concern, saying that donors have no reason to think their largess will be rewarded.

"They should not expect anything in return except to help put on a great celebration for the people of our state," spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said. "The inaugural celebration will include world-class entertainment, free food and free beverage and really is a way for us to say thank you to the thousands of families and individuals who helped during the campaign."

He could not say what the inaugural celebration will cost, but four years ago Ehrlich raised nearly $1 million for festivities. Virginia's gubernatorial celebration in January cost $2.6 million.

Laws restrict how much donors may contribute to campaigns in Maryland and the District, but there are no restrictions on amounts given to help put on an inaugural ball.

That's because politicians have made a practice of setting up tax-exempt corporations to raise money for the events. By law, the corporations are not required to disclose their donors, but politicians often have voluntarily released such lists.

The Maryland Inaugural Committee Inc. was formed 10 days after O'Malley defeated Ehrlich. O'Malley's campaign treasurer is listed as the resident agent of the corporation, which is classified as a 501(c)(4), a reference to the section of the Internal Revenue Service code that grants tax-exempt status to social welfare and civic organizations.

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