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  •   Opinion Curbs Giving To Candidate Slates

    By Scott Wilson
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, March 5, 1998; Page D01

    The Maryland attorney general's office said yesterday that donors cannot exceed strict contribution limits when they give money to both a candidate and a candidate's slate, an opinion that threatens to force the return of thousands of dollars in contributions already collected for the fall elections.

    The legal interpretation significantly changes the rules on a fund-raising practice Maryland candidates from both parties have relied on for years to help pool their resources, and it comes at a time of rising concern nationally about candidates pushing the limits of campaign finance rules. In Maryland, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) announced last year that he was forming the state's largest slate ever, encompassing 24 of 31 Democratic state senators, with the intent of raising $1 million.

    Miller's move, and a report in The Washington Post about it on Monday, prompted a Republican member of the House of Delegates to seek an opinion from the attorney general on the fund-raising limits governing slates. Kathleen Hoke Dachille, the attorney general's counsel for election law, advised that an individual cannot give more than $4,000 in total to a candidate and a candidate's slate during a four-year election cycle.

    Previously, many candidates believed it was acceptable to receive as much as $4,000 individually and another $4,000 for their slate, to effectively raise as much as $8,000 from the same donor. Dachille would not comment on whether money collected improperly would have to be returned, but already some large donors said they are preparing to ask for their contributions back.

    The law "is not new. We've just never been asked to look at it before," Dachille said, explaining why the attorney general's office had not commented on the practice previously.

    In Maryland, candidates are permitted to team up and form slates to raise and spend campaign funds. Forty-one slates currently operate in the state, and most are confined to candidates from the same legislative district or county.

    But Miller's creation of a statewide slate sparked a lively partisan debate in Maryland that spilled onto the floor of the House of Delegates yesterday. House Republicans failed yesterday by a 96 to 41 vote to restrict slate membership to candidates from the same county or legislative district. They said their aim was to prevent slate chairmen such as Miller from shifting huge sums of money, over and above normal campaign finance limits, between slate members on a statewide basis.

    "This is a super slate being formed," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard), the House minority whip. "That is an abuse, and I will tell you this will be an issue in the campaign."

    But Del. Leon G. Billings (D-Montgomery) said, "They [GOP lawmakers] would not be offering this if they were in the majority in the legislature."

    While Republicans were battling in the General Assembly, Del. John R. Leopold (R-Anne Arundel) separately asked Dachille to interpret the financing guidelines governing slates after reading the Post story. Her response, which will take the form of an "advice letter" to Leopold, should be drafted by week's end, Dachille said. The letter then would lend legal ammunition to people who want to challenge a candidate's fund-raising practices in court.

    Campaign donors wishing to heed Dachille's legal interpretation will now have to choose between giving money to a candidate or to the candidate's slate. But they will not be allowed to exceed the limit by giving money to both. Dachille's advisory does not cover whether a political action committee can give more than its limit of $6,000 to a candidate and a candidate's slate, but a spokesman for the attorney general's office said the issue is under consideration.

    "This gets at the streams of money coming into the slate, and that's significant," said Kathleen Skullney, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the watchdog group Common Cause, which made reforming slate rules its top legislative priority this year. "What it leaves unaddressed are the streams of money within the slate, which is equally troubling."

    Miller said he was advised by the attorney general's office that as long as every member had not individually received the maximum amount of money allowed from a donor, the slate could accept additional contributions from that donor.

    "I haven't seen or heard from the AG's office," Miller said yesterday. "I'll worry about this in July. There are more important things going on right now, frankly. No one, including the radical right wing, is going to gum up my efforts right now."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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