Joint campaign accounts thwart tracking donations in Prince George's

By Jonathan Mummolo and Meg Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 26, 2010; B01

Voters intent on figuring out who is funding the campaign of a Prince George's County Council member had better clear their schedules.

Simply reviewing the donations to a member's personal campaign fund won't account for all the cash -- not even close. That's because most of the money that members have access to in this election year is being raised through slates: joint accounts shared by two or more candidates. Donations go into a common pot that slate members can draw on in unlimited amounts, and identifying the intended recipient of contributions is next to impossible.

Slates are "more like slush funds than campaign accounts," said Ryan O'Donnell, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a nonprofit group that promotes government accountability. "You do have a problem of differentiating whose money is whose."

Ironically, the opaqueness of this common practice stems directly from a 1993 Maryland law that was billed as a way to bring more accountability to campaign finance in the county. On its face, the law restricts contributions to council members -- who vote on development issues -- and the county executive from developers with projects awaiting county approval.

But the law includes a clause that makes contributions to slates permissible, a loophole that critics say rendered it toothless from the start. In the years since, county officials have formed slates that have legally taken thousands of dollars from developers every year, and this election cycle is no exception.

Since the 2006 election, developers and their representatives seeking approval for projects have given more than $40,000 in contributions to slates that include Prince George's council members, a Washington Post analysis found. That figure could be a low estimate, because the review excluded donations of less than $100 and did not account for contributions from all parties affiliated with projects. Many thousands of dollars more have come to the slates from developers who did not have pending projects.

The nine council members in Prince George's, all of them Democrats, belong to 14 slates with state senators, state delegates and local candidates. Five council members are term-limited, but some of them have already declared their intention to seek other offices.

The 14 slates had combined cash balances of about $1 million as of the most recent finance filings. The members' personal campaign account balances, meanwhile, total about $150,000, with six members showing less than $10,000 cash on hand each.

"It's obvious how it's worked out: The statute was designed to stop developer contributions that were associated with specific zoning cases, and the slate exception has completely swallowed up the statute," said former delegate Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's), one of the law's original backers in 1993. "The law has no practical effect because of this loophole."

'No nefarious reason'

Council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (Laurel), who belongs to five slates -- one of which has more than 30 members -- said in an e-mail that candidates join slates to "share expenses and pool fundraising opportunities." He said the "1993 ethics law adds to the reasons, but joining a slate on this basis is required to ensure that you do not run afoul of the law."

County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), whose slate has also received money from development sources, said he thought the law should apply statewide without any loopholes. Council members Eric Olson (College Park) and William A. Campos (Hyattsville) said they joined slates to partner with like-minded officials.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) "and I . . . we represent basically the same area, and we've worked together for a long time, and it makes sense to campaign together," said Olson, referring to another member of one of his two slates.

Several council members said that they have judged projects solely on their merits and that developers who donate are not guaranteed approval of their projects.

"I think it would be almost ludicrous that someone is going to give you a couple thousand dollars and that's going to influence the decisions that you make," said member Samuel H. Dean (Mitchellville), who is running for county executive.

In many cases, developers' attorneys, who are also barred from contributing directly to officials, have donated to slates. They said their contributions were not intended to influence members and were often given at fundraisers they attend to make business contacts and mingle with acquaintances.

"It's more of a social event than anything else," said Thomas H. Haller, a lawyer with the firm Gibbs & Haller, a regular donor to slates in recent years.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), whose district includes a section of Prince George's, helped push through the 1993 law. Some said it was a way to steer council members onto the same fundraising teams as state senators so they could share in the wealth.

Miller and Maloney say their motive was to clean up the development process in Prince George's. In addition to restricting donations, the law also bars council members from voting on a donor's project if they have received money from that donor within three years of the application being filed. The slate exception, however, has made that rule moot, too.

"I know that people will point to it, but there really was no nefarious reason for an exception at the time," Miller said.

Maloney said the exception's purpose was to make sure that county officials could still form slates with like-minded candidates to campaign as a ticket and share costs. It was not intended as a vehicle for candidates to circumvent campaign finance laws, he said.

Follow the money

Ascertaining whether developers' contributions might have influenced members is a tough task to begin with, and slates make it even tougher. Records make it possible to construct a chronology of transactions and decisions but little more.

One example involves a conceptual site plan for a mixed-use development in the Bowie area that called for a hotel, office space and various shops and that was submitted in July 2006. The project was represented by John P. McDonough, then a land-use lawyer and now Maryland's secretary of state.

Between 2005 and 2008, McDonough and his law firm gave more than $3,500 to slates that included council members Dean, Olson, Dernoga, Campos and Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant). During those years, transfers were made from those slates to the personal campaign accounts of council members Dean, Dernoga, Olson, Campos, Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie) and Marilynn M. Bland (D-Clinton), as well as to other slates that included Exum and Johnson, campaign finance records show.

All council members but Exum, who abstained, voted yes on the application May 11, records show. McDonough declined to comment on the project because he no longer represents it, but he said that his donations were meant to support slates as a whole and that he never sought special treatment.

In August 2005, the firm Shipley, Horne and Hewlett represented an energy company applying for a special exception for a fly ash landfill that some people said would put the health of nearby residents at risk, records show.

The firm and its lawyers gave close to $10,000 to slates from 2003 to 2007, and those slates have sent money to members Bland, Dernoga, Olson, Tony Knotts (Temple Hills) and Andrea Harrison (Springdale). The measure passed unanimously in July 2007, before Harrison joined the council. Arthur J. Horne Jr. said the firm's contributions were not intended to sway officials.

A similar pattern can be seen with applications for a pharmacy in Upper Marlboro approved in 2007; a shopping center in Largo approved in 2009; and a gas station in Beltsville approved in 2008.

Miller, on two slates, has received money from some of the same development sources. He said that the 1993 law was being skirted in Prince George's and that he would favor stiffening it and making it apply statewide, though it might be "too late."

"We don't have the fire departments to support the development. We don't have the police stations to support the development. We don't have the schools to support the development. We don't have the roads to support the development. And yet every year, more and more housing stock gets approved," Miller said. "The problem is, the damage is almost irreversible."

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