Nearly 1 in 10 Maryland state lawmakers has solicited donations online during the current legislative session, records show, a possible violation of a state ban on fundraising during that 90-day period.
Lawmakers described the situation as an inadvertent oversight rather than illegal fundraising, and none reported actually receiving any contributions after the session began Jan. 13.
The State Board of Elections prohibits having active contribution links, such as PayPal accounts, on campaign websites. Lawmakers running for local or federal office are exempt from the fundraising ban.
The issue has drawn some attention in the State House in recent days, after the Montgomery County Young Republicans criticized Sen. Roger Manno (D-Montgomery) for leaving up a contribution page on his website.
Manno, who has introduced legislation to make it easier to penalize lawmakers who attempt to fundraise during the session, said his campaign hasn’t “received any contributions or sought any.” He and other lawmakers said they were not sure whether an online donation would even go through during the session.
The public criticism sent other lawmakers scrambling to scrub their online presences of references to donations.
The Washington Post this week reviewed campaign websites for all 187 Maryland state lawmakers, along with cached versions, for signs of fundraising.
Six lawmakers have online forms for campaign contributions, and at least 11 others had donation pages that were active during the session but have been taken down. Another eight had listed an address to send in campaign checks, which is not as clear-cut of a violation.
Government ethics advocates say the fundraising ban is in place for good reason.
“Legislators cannot accept donations with one hand and vote on issues related to that donor with the other,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of Common Cause Maryland. “Even if the delegate or senator does return it, there is still a transaction where a donor’s name came into the legislator’s possession, and that can influence a legislator’s vote.”
In interviews, lawmakers said they weren’t trying to improperly collect money. Some said they had safeguards in place to prevent online donations from reaching their bank accounts during the session, which would mean they are in compliance with state rules. Several said they had simply neglected to shut down campaign websites that have not been an effective way of raising money.
“I just totally forgot about it,” said Del. Teresa E. Reilly (R-Harford), who recently disabled a “donate” button that she says was never used.
“It’s one of those things you don’t think about it, and you don’t even realize is a problem,” said Del. Barbara A. Robinson (D-Baltimore City), whose site was authorized to collect donations as of Thursday.
Among those with active donation pages was Del. Marvin E. Holmes Jr. (D-Prince George’s), who is co-chair of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.
“I thought I had that taken care of,” Holmes said, noting that a separate contribution page was disabled. “Obviously we are not trying to skirt or sidestep the law.”
Jared DeMarinis, the campaign finance director for the elections board, said lawmakers who have active donation links should remove them immediately and report violations to his agency.
The penalty for fundraising during the session is $1,000 plus the value of contributions, though officials said it is rarely enforced in cases where lawmakers inadvertently leave online donation pages running.
It is routine for political activists to scrub opponents’ websites for references to donations in an attempt to discredit them.
In Virginia, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) was criticized by Democrats last year for accepting contributions on his campaign website after the start of the legislative session. He returned the contributions and was not fined.
With the Virginia legislature back in session, Marshall’s campaign website is again linking to a donation page. He did not return a message seeking comment. A review of the websites of the other 139 lawmakers in Virginia found no other active online donation pages.
Ashley Balcerzak and Samantha Hogan contributed to this report.
Here are the Maryland lawmakers whose websites included a request for online donations at some point during this legislative session:
Had online donation pages as of Thursday, which they say they will take down:
Del. Susan L. M. Aumann (R-Baltimore County)
Sen. Adelaide C. Eckardt (R-Eastern Shore)
Del. Marvin E. Holmes Jr. (D-Prince George’s)
Del. Michael W. McKay (R-Allegany)
Del. Barbara A. Robinson (D-Baltimore City)
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County)
Had online donation pages earlier in the session that have been taken down:
Sen. Gail Bates (R-Howard)
Del. Wendell R. Beitzel (R-Garrett)
Del. William G. Folden (R-Frederick)
Sen. Steve Hershey (R-Queen Anne’s)
Del. Michael E. Malone (R-Anne Arundel)
Sen. Roger Manno (D-Montgomery County)
Del. Richard W. Metzger (R-Baltimore County)
Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington County)
Del. Andrew Platt (D-Montgomery County)
Sen. Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll)
Del. Teresa Reilly (R-Harford)