Maryland Democrats gathered Tuesday for what was supposed to be an energetic prelegislative-session lunch featuring top elected officials and rising stars railing against President-elect Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Washington.
Hanging over them, however, was the specter of a growing federal corruption investigation in Prince George’s County that has expanded to the State House in Annapolis.
Minutes before the doors to the hotel ballroom opened, federal prosecutors announced that former state delegate William A. Campos (D-Prince George’s) had pleaded guilty to accepting bribes stemming from his time on the County Council.
Prosecutors say that more than one lawmaker remains under investigation in the case and that at least one more will be charged.
While Democrats cheered on luncheon speeches calling for protecting the federal health-care law and standing up for the working class, they also were checking their phones for updates on allegations that have muddied their party’s name.
Some Democratic lawmakers privately vented their disbelief that a colleague would accept bribes, and expressed fears that the investigation would expand beyond the current and former lawmaker alluded to in federal charging documents.
The 90-day legislative session starts Wednesday.
“The first day of session is just like Opening Day of baseball. There’s always optimism,” said Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s). “When you come in with this sort of pall cast over the session, it definitely puts a damper on it.”
Del. Jay Walker (D), who chairs the Prince George’s delegation, was huddling with other lawmakers and officials throughout the afternoon. He said his phone had been blowing up with messages about Campos’s plea. He declined to comment on the case, referring instead to an earlier statement in which he said that the federal corruption allegations do not reflect the behavior of other lawmakers from Prince George’s.
In a separate embarrassment, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) canceled plans Tuesday to swear in a Baltimore Democrat who had been appointed to a vacant House seat after that nominee was charged with making illegal campaign contributions to then-state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh’s successful campaign for Baltimore mayor.
The appointment to the House seat has been rescinded.
In a brief interview after the lunch, Busch said the public should still have faith in the legislative body.
“The vast majority of people come down here and take their oath of office very seriously and understand what their job is,” Busch said. “Unfortunately, like every other area of human life, some people try to take advantage of the system, and they end up getting caught.”
In a prepared statement released later Tuesday, Busch said he was “ painfully disappointed that any member of the House of Delegates would compromise this institution and the public trust.”
“There is no room for this type of behavior in the House of Delegates,” the statement said. “Each of us needs to redouble our efforts to rebuild the trust with our constituents that has been compromised by the actions announced today.”
Campos’s guilty plea follows charges announced Thursday against David Dae Sok Son, 40, the director of the Prince George’s liquor board; Anuj Sud, 39, a liquor board commissioner who resigned Friday; Young Jung Paig, 62, owner of Central Avenue Restaurant & Liquor Store; and Shin Ja Lee, 55, owner of Palmer Liquor Store.
State lawmakers from Prince George’s with close ties to some of the defendants did not attend the Democratic lunch. They include Alonzo Washington, Campos’s former chief of staff; Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, a longtime mentor to and ally of Campos; and Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, who hired Son as a liaison for the county delegation in 2015.
Washington, Ramirez and Peters did not return calls for comment on the federal probe.
Those Democrats who did attend the lunch heard speeches from U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and legislative leaders, who urged them to fight hard for progressive causes as a bulwark against a Republican-controlled Washington.
Maryland is one of the few states where Democrats control veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the legislature, although Republican Larry Hogan is governor.
The outgoing U.S. labor secretary, Thomas Perez, who is running to lead the Democratic National Committee, told lawmakers that they will be the “tip of the spear” in representing Democratic values and helping topple Republicans, including Hogan, in 2018.
“It’s one thing for this governor to say he didn’t vote for Donald Trump. We need governors in this state who will lead the fight against Donald Trump,” Perez said. “We need to make sure as Democrats that we fight back, and we fight back often, and we understand that you don’t take a spoon to a knife fight.”
But Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore), who heads the Legislative Black Caucus, worried that the corruption case could damage the Democratic brand for future elections for the General Assembly and for governor.
“We have to do a much better job if we expect to take back some seats in 2018,” she said. “We have to show the people that we are serious about representing them, not just our personal agendas. When people act the wrong way and we have all these Republicans elected, it’s devastating. If we don’t take back the governorship in 2018, we’re facing redistricting, and we can lose our veto-proof majority.”