Complaints filed against Baltimore mayoral candidate Catherine Pugh, donors

Contributions to Catherine Pugh's Baltimore mayoral campaign are under scrutiny.

The State Board of Elections has forwarded to prosecutors a citizen's complaint that a developer used several different companies to give money to the Baltimore mayoral campaign of state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh in order to circumvent donation limits in the Democratic primary.

The complaint — which was filed last month and obtained by The Baltimore Sun Friday through a Maryland Public Information Act request — centers on whether developer Armando Cignarale and companies connected to him violated state law by contributing $36,000 to Pugh's campaign for mayor.

Board officials also have received a complaint about Pugh's effort to get out the vote in Baltimore. During job interviews, the Pugh campaign has been offering job candidates food before busing some to the polls for early voting. At least one potential worker told The Sun he felt pressured to vote for Pugh after visiting her campaign office in search of a job.

The Pugh campaign has denied any wrongdoing. Pugh spokesman Anthony McCarthy said the campaign re-evaluated its "procedures and protocols" and did not believe it was necessary to change the recruitment efforts, including its job screenings, free meals provided to potential workers, offers of bus rides to the polls or snack bags provided on the buses.

McCarthy said Sunday the campaign had undertaken a "very serious" review. "We see absolutely nothing wrong with anything we're currently doing," he said.

Pugh has said she does not personally police each of her contributions and trusts her donors not to violate the law.

Cingarale did not respond to requests for comment. Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said he could neither confirm nor deny an investigation.

The developer, who tried unsuccessfully to build a 23-story tower along Canton's waterfront in 2007, and his family have given $24,000 to Pugh's campaign. Cignarale's Timonium-based Cignal Corp. and three other businesses at the same address have given another $12,000 to Pugh.

Under a new Maryland law, a company is not allowed to give more than $6,000 to a candidate. But a related company may give another $6,000 to the same candidate so long as the owner of the first company owns less than 80 percent of the related company.

Many real estate developers use limited-liability corporations for different projects. Such LLCs do not have to list an owner or make their books public, making it difficult for the Board of Elections to enforce the law.

The Board of Elections received the complaint about Pugh's get-out-the-vote effort on Saturday.

Colin A. Byrd filed the complaints after reading newspaper articles on the topics.

"I just wanted to make sure that if there was a violation of the act that she was held accountable," Byrd said. "I have no ties to any candidate. I was just concerned."

As a senior sociology student at the University of Maryland, Byrd led the effort last year to push the University of Maryland Board of Regents take the name of segregationist Harry C. "Curley" Byrd off the University of Maryland stadium.

McCarthy said the criticism was a sign of desperation from the campaign of former Mayor Sheila Dixon.

"We're really moving this city forward," McCarthy said. "The voters are really smart, and they'll see through the feeble attempts to save [Dixon's] failing campaign."

But other campaigns have been quick to jump on the issues.

Lawyer Elizabeth Embry, who has been polling third in the Democratic primary behind Pugh and Dixon, called the latest complaint "the latest in a series of red flags that raise serious questions about judgment and the ability to manage."

"We need a Mayor we can trust to govern with integrity and get the work done to move our city forward," Embry said in a statement.

Other mayoral candidates have received money from donors and companies through multiple businesses located at the same address.

Embry, for example, has received more than $60,000 from donors with ties to real estate developer David S. Cordish, the owner of Maryland Live Casino. Six companies with the address of The Cordish Cos. headquarters gave her campaign about $6,000 each.

A spokesman for Embry has said the campaign went "above and beyond what we're required to do" to make sure the donations complied with the law. Embry says Cordish is a family friend she has known since she was an infant.

McCarthy said the Pugh campaign would not allow its rivals to "drag us into the gutter."

"We're trying desperately not to be distracted," he said. "We're not going to go there."

Byrd also raised concerns in his first complaint about $66,000 in checks sent to Pugh's campaign that bounced. Some mayoral opponents have alleged that those contributions came from phony companies, which would be illegal.

Jared DeMarinis, director of the State Board of Elections' campaign finance division, said elections officials have opened an inquiry into a third complaint, filed against a political action committee that is supporting Pugh in advertisements and criticizing Dixon as "corrupt."

The complaint against the Clean Slate Baltimore political action committee came from Dixon's campaign.

"We have that complaint, and the complaint is being reviewed by this office," DeMarinis said. "It will go through its normal course to its eventual conclusion."

The Dixon campaign said last week that Clean Slate Baltimore had not disclosed the source of hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding.

"Clean Slate has ignored state law requiring groups to file an independent expenditure report within 48 hours once the group has spent a cumulative $10,000 in public communication," a Dixon spokeswoman wrote in the complaint. "Clean Slate has ignored this rule in the past and is doing so with its current media buy supporting Senator Catherine Pugh."

Clean Slate filed a report last week showing it had received $354,000 in contributions, most of it from the Mid-Atlantic Laborers Political Education Fund, operated by a union that has endorsed Pugh.

The PAC reported spending $554,000 to support different candidates, including $223,000 on television ads to benefit Pugh. It had paid $53,000 to KOFA Public Affairs, the consulting firm run by political operatives Steve Kearney, Damian O'Doherty, Jamie Fontaine-Gansell and Rick Abbruzzese.

"All Clean Slate Baltimore contributions and expenditures are public and disclosed with the Federal Election Commission and the MD Board of Elections," Walter Ludwig, the managing partner of Indigo Strategies, a Washington firm that does work for the PAC, wrote in an email.

Clean Slate Baltimore has distributed fliers that depict Dixon as a criminal in a photo doctored to look like a mug shot. The former mayor was forced from office in 2010 after she was found guilty of embezzlement and perjury.

Pugh has condemned the PAC's negative campaign tactics against Dixon.

"I want to be real clear that I don't do negative campaigning and have asked anyone who is doing negative campaigning ... Do Not Use My Name," Pugh wrote on Facebook. "I understand Clean Slate is an independent Group that was not even interested in my candidacy ... was not set up for me ... but for someone else they thought would win ... I'm running on my vision, my work and my commitment to this city."

Dixon got her own boost last week with the creation of a pro-Dixon political action committee to pay for campaign workers. The Mobilization Project PAC has received $225,000 from the Carpenters Fund for Growth and Progress, which is connected to a carpenters union local office in New Jersey.

The PAC's treasurer, Gary Gruver, did not respond to a request for comment.

A lawyer for the Dixon campaign said state prosecutors have closed their examination of Dixon's campaign finance reports. Prosecutors had been investigating a complaint regarding 17 amendments the Dixon campaign made to its campaign finance reports last year. The amendments belatedly detailed spending of nearly $200,000 no longer in her account.

Barak Cohen, of the Washington firm Perkins Coie, said Davitt called him and "told me their investigation was closed and there was no discrepancy."

State prosecutors said they could neither confirm nor deny the existence of the investigation.

Nearly 30 people — including 12 Democrats — are vying to become the next mayor of Baltimore. Current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is not seeking re-election. The primary election day is April 26.

Pugh led a poll this month conducted for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore. She was followed closely by Dixon.

Embry came in third, followed by businessman David L. Warnock and City Councilman Carl Stokes.

According to campaign finance reports filed Friday, the top seven Democrats running for mayor have spent more than $5.6 million during the campaign, nearly double previous mayoral elections.

After three days of early voting, 10,159 people had cast ballots in Baltimore — nearly three times the 3,695 early voters during the last mayoral race 2011. More than 150 have voted using same-day registration.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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