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Joint campaign accounts thwart tracking donations in Prince George's

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 26, 2010

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

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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.


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