Md. First Lady's Charities Draw
A Powerful Crowd
By Charles Babington
The foundation was established in 1995 to renovate the governor's mansion, attract rotating art exhibits and eventually pay for the first couple's official portraits. Its major donors are a Who's Who of Maryland businesses, some of them holding state government contracts and others regulated by state agencies. More than a dozen of the contributions exceed the $4,000 per-campaign limit that Maryland applies to individuals and corporations making campaign donations.
Donations made either directly or through charitable affiliates or owners' families include: $26,000 from Washington Gas, $27,500 from Bell Atlantic Maryland, $25,000 from the Alex. Brown & Sons Inc. brokerage, $19,500 from Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. (builder of the state-financed professional baseball and football stadiums in Baltimore's Camden Yards), and $11,500 from the Perdue poultry-producing family. In all, the group says it has raised about $317,000.
Gerard E. Evans, the state's top-grossing lobbyist, gave $8,000 to the Government House Foundation Inc. from his Annapolis-based firm. He also persuaded several clients, who have vital interests in state government, to contribute as well.
"It's being part of Maryland history" to help improve the mansion, Evans said. "It's an honor to be involved, regardless who the governor is and what his issues are."
But others say such contributions raise troubling questions. Because charitable, nonprofit groups are not subject to contribution limits or disclosure requirements -- two hallmarks of campaign finance reforms in Maryland and elsewhere -- some critics say they can serve as avenues for those hoping to quietly ingratiate themselves with a powerful elected official.
The Government House fund voluntarily disclosed its contributors when asked by The Washington Post. Asked whether donors might see the fund as a way to gain access to the governor, William V. Meyers, a lawyer and the president of the group, said that might be a potential problem.
"Whether it gets them anything or not is another question," he said. "I don't think that it does."
Some government watchdog groups aren't so sure.
"Any time you've got an elected official or their family out there soliciting money from anyone -- especially those who are doing business with the state -- you immediately have this appearance of conflict of interest, which cuts down on the trust that people have in the government," said Kent Cooper, director of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.
How to pay for improvements at Government House, the name of the stately governor's mansion in Annapolis, has been controversial before. Glendening's predecessor, William Donald Schaefer, was criticized for spending more than $1.7 million in public funds to renovate the mansion. Schaefer also solicited private donations through a nonprofit fund much like the Government House Foundation.
Meyers said money from the foundation has helped replace window treatments and upholstery and upgrade several private guest rooms to accommodate official visitors. It also has funded fine arts exhibits at the mansion, and it finances annual holiday and spring open houses.
Administration officials said the Glendenings felt it was best to use private funds for such activities, thus saving taxpayer money.
The fund for Maryland's Government House isn't the only charitable, nonprofit fund-raising group closely associated with Frances Glendening, who declined to be interviewed for this story. She's also the founder and president of Women of Achievement in Maryland History Inc., whose main goal is to publish a book about prominent state women.
Smaller than the Government House Foundation, the women's fund has raised money through theater outings and parties, such as one at the Salisbury home of Frank and Mitzi Perdue of Perdue Farms Inc. Those who have contributed $1,000, thereby reaching the "patron" level, include First National Bank of Maryland, The Washington Post Co., Potomac Electric Power Co. and a foundation associated with Procter & Gamble Co., according to the group's brochure.
Donors listed as "underwriters" for making significant non-cash contributions of office space, computers, phones or other equipment include Lockheed Martin, Bell Atlantic Maryland, NationsBank and Comcast. In its 1996 federal tax return, the group reported raising $55,869 for the year.
The women's book proposal stems from a similar endeavor in Prince George's County headed by Frances Glendening. The officers of Women of Achievement, all unpaid, are mostly longtime Glendening aides now in state government. Board member Andrea Leahy-Fucheck, the governor's legal director, said the officers don't work for the group on state time.
In interviews, major donors to the two nonprofit funds said their goal was not to ingratiate themselves with the governor, his wife or staff.
"That's not our intent at all," said Sandra Arnette, spokeswoman for Bell Atlantic, a top giver to both funds. "That was not on our radar screen to look at this as another means of getting close to the governor."
Arnette said Bell Atlantic was especially drawn to the Government House fund because of its "educational aspect." She noted that Frances Glendening has used some of the proceeds to bring art exhibits and other displays to the mansion, which is frequently visited by schoolchildren.
Patricia J. Bonacorda, owner of Spartan Plumbing, is a longtime friend of the Glendenings who gave the maximum allowed in the 1994 campaign: $4,000 to Glendening and $4,000 to his running mate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. She already has given $3,625 to Glendening's reelection campaign, as well as $6,500 -- either personally or through her Prince George's County-based company -- to the Government House Foundation.
"I have a great admiration for both of them," Bonacorda said of the Glendenings. "I don't expect anything in return. I don't want it, and I don't need it." She praised Frances Glendening's work in the arts but said the first lady unfortunately is raising money less fervently now.
"She didn't want to compete with her husband or with the bad rap that he's gotten in general" for controversial campaign fund-raising efforts, Bonacorda said. "She started out wanting to do more, but she's very subdued now."
Evans said criticism of the governor was unfair. "The governor's damned either way," he said. "He's damned for going to the private sector. But he'd be damned for going to the public tax till."
Meyers, a longtime Glendening friend, said Frances Glendening and the foundation's other directors voted in October 1996 to cap donations at $25,000 per four-year cycle. The limit does not apply to corporate-affiliated charitable organizations, which is one means that Bell Atlantic used to exceed the limit. Washington Gas exceeded the voluntary limit by $1,000 before the cap was approved.
Just because Frances Glendening cares deeply about the Government House fund, Meyers said, that doesn't mean donors are trying to buy influence with her or her husband.
"Obviously, Mrs. Glendening cares a lot about this," said Meyers, whose law partner is Glendening adviser Lance W. Billingsley. "Different people have different motives" for giving money. "I really think most of the people I have talked to who have given a lot like the feeling that the money they have given to that house will be there in perpetuity."
But Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a Republican hoping to unseat Glendening in the November elections, said legislators should oversee groups raising money to improve the governor's mansion.
"If a company is allowed to give only $4,000 in campaign contributions, but it can give $25,000 in another way, that raises a question of motivation," she said. "How do you draw the line between philanthropy and a contribution that's simply ingratiating any kind of interest group with a governor who can influence their affairs?"
Staff researchers Bridget Roeber and Margot Williams contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company