The Chevy Chase Land Co., one of Montgomery County's oldest and best-known development companies, is in violation of state campaign finance regulations limiting contributions, state election records show.
Under Maryland law, individuals and companies cannot donate a total of more than $10,000 to candidates for state or local office or to political action committees during a four-year election cycle. According to the state board of elections, the company already has contributed $11,200 in the current cycle, which began in 2003 and runs through 2006.
Most of the money went to Montgomery County Council members and to the county executive and gubernatorial candidate, Douglas M. Duncan (D). Both Duncan and the council have enormous influence over zoning and other land-use decisions.
"It's just another example of a development company contributing a significant amount of money to the campaign coffers of candidates who influence land-use policy," said Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), the only council member who does not accept contributions from developers or PACs.
Chevy Chase Land Co. officials did not return a series of phone calls, beginning last week and most recently yesterday. It is not known whether the company has attempted to recover any of the excess donations.
Council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At large), who has received $3,000 from the company in the current cycle, said he doubts the firm knowingly exceeded the limit.
"These guy are usually pretty careful," said Silverman, a candidate for county executive who, like many other council members, relies heavily on contributions from builders and developers.
Either way, the donations could become a case in point for civic activists hoping to make the influence of developers a theme in next year's county elections.
"I think the issue of developers' influence is going to explode in the elections in Montgomery County next year, and our campaign finance laws have clearly failed to restrain their influence," said James Browning, former executive director of Common Cause Maryland, which first determined that the company had broken the ceiling on contributions.
The company, founded in 1890 by Francis G. Newlands, who would later become a U.S. senator from Nevada, has no pending business before the County Council. It has, however, routinely sought zoning changes over the years.
In 1998, for example, the council rebuffed protests from residents and allowed denser development on a parcel of land near the Friendship Heights Metro station that is owned by the company. It is building a 112,000-square-foot office and retail project on the land.
The company is also a major proponent of the proposed inner route of the Purple Line of Metro. A potential stop sits directly across from property owned by the firm.
Besides Silverman, Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), members Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) and Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) have received contributions from the company.
"If they have gone over the limit, they will have to find some way to get under," said Denis, who received $600 in 2003.
The company also contributed $2,000 to the Greater Washington Board of Trade PAC and $600 to the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee during the current cycle.
Terry Harris, deputy director of the Maryland State Board of Elections Campaign Finance Division, said "it's not rare" for a company or individual to exceed the limit.
But in recent months, State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh has taken a more aggressive approach to such excesses.
In April, Rohrbaugh issued $58,000 in fines against 14 companies that exceeded the $10,000 limit in the 1999-2002 cycle. This month, his office cited an additional five companies a total of $29,950 for the same violation.
One of them was Barwood Inc, Montgomery's dominant provider of taxi service. Barwood was fined $5,940 for exceeding the limit by $3,800 during the 1999-2002 cycle.