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Campaign Donors Foot the Bill for More than Candidates’ Election Campaigns

Photo: Jim T. Smith, former Baltimore County executive and chief of strategic alliances for fallen Baltimore City Mayor Catherine Pugh

Donors’ financial support for chosen political candidates goes to more than expenses to get those candidates elected.

Besides advertising, political shindigs, and campaign contributions sent to political action committees, other candidate committees and slate campaigns, those funds – given in good faith to the campaigns – also go to paying fees when those committees violate the State Board of Elections’ (SBE) filing procedures, campaign rules and state law.

One such way candidates and their committees are zinged – and in which contributors foot the bill – is when they fail to file timely campaign finance reports, a requirement which allows the public to see how money is spent and from whom contributions are given.

But when a candidate is cited for “failure to file,” and daily fees rack up, not only does the public not have the opportunity to review campaign finance records in a timely fashion – or at all – but the donors are the ones who actually incur the cost since its their contributions that go toward paying the fees.

In the case of the Baltimore County Victory Slate, a slate campaign founded by Jim T. Smith – former Baltimore County executive, judge, transportation secretary and chief of strategic alliances for fallen Baltimore City Mayor Catherine Pugh – Smith’s slate campaign has yet to file the required January 2020 report, racking up the maximum penalty of $1,000 for not only failing to file it on time, but at all.

Donors will pay for that.

When the Victory Slate gave an illegal $100,000 contribution to the former mayor in 2016, the cost for the civil penalty – $3,000 – was assessed.

Donors paid for that.

Over the life of its campaign, the Victory Slate has been assessed roughly $7,000 for campaign violations and the one-time civil penalty, more than half for failing to file campaign finance reports on time.

Donors paid for all of it.

And last year, when Howard County Executive Calvin Ball failed to maintain account books and records during his run for office, the violation cost his campaign $1,150.00 for the offense, campaign finance records show.

Donors paid for that.

In 2018, during Valerie Ervin’s run for lieutenant governor, she was cited for her failure to maintain account books and records, the campaign account shows.

Ervin also did not report expenditures and contributions on a campaign finance report.  As a result, her campaign paid the elections board $750 in fees, joining $1,440 more for failing to file campaign finance reports on time.

And, like Ervin, the Carroll County FOP Lodge political action committee failed to maintain account books. It, too, paid $750 in fees.  Adding also to its failure to file timely campaign finance reports, the committee has paid over $3,000 in fees to the SBE.

Donors paid for all of that, too.

Just a few examples of the hundreds of violations noted in the Maryland Campaign Finance record of violations.

While the SBE manual states those who fail to file “within a few months” of the deadline are forwarded to the state prosecutor’s office for review, it is not clear if this practice is done with fidelity — and for all candidates.

Without an incentive – beyond the fees – the campaign finance laws appear to be toothless.  But donors pay for that, not the candidates or committees.

Flagging Violations

The SBE says that while some violations are flagged by its campaign software system, most are citizen and media reported. And that when someone discovers a discrepancy or questionable contribution, the SBE swings into action.

Or does it?

For instance, anonymous contributions are strictly prohibited, says the elections manual and SBE Director Jared DeMarinis.

“Pursuant to Election Law Article 13-239, a campaign finance entity that receives a contribution from an anonymous source may not use the contribution for any purpose.  Additionally, the committee must remit the contribution to the Fair Campaign Financing Fund,” DeMarinis said.

As reported last month, over $70,000 in such contributions – found by using simple search terms such as “anonymous” and “Jane Doe” or “John Doe” – were accepted by Maryland candidates over the last decade – $18,000 of which went to former Baltimore City Mayor Catherine Pugh in 2016. But not one of them was flagged by the SBE, records show.

But what happens when the casual observer notices that a committee failed to report contributions and brings the oversight to the attention of the elections board?

Just weeks before ending his account in 2015, former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith transferred $97,664.97 to the Baltimore County Victory Slate according to Smith’s campaign finance records.

Five years later, the money has still not shown up in the Victory Slate’s account balance, a slate Smith founded in 2006.

But over two months after The Gunpowder Gazette inquired about the missing funds, SBE Director Jared DeMarinis will not respond to questions.  He said last month that the board would start a “holistic review” of the Smith’s accounts, but as of Friday, DeMarinis will not respond that one is actually underway.

But even if the missing cash is found by the SBE as not much more than a failure to disclose the payment (for five years), campaign donors – not Smith – will pay for the violation, too.
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