Catonsville developer Steve W. Whalen Jr. pleaded guilty Thursday in Baltimore County Circuit Court to five counts of election-law violations for illegally funneling money to a county councilman's campaign and exceeding political contribution limits.
Whalen, 62, was fined $53,000 in a plea agreement worked out by his attorneys and state prosecutors. He already has paid $5,000 in civil fines related to the case, his lawyer said. Each count had carried a potential of one year in prison.
State prosecutors said Whalen, owner of Whalen Properties, gave a total of $7,500 in cash to three people — his personal fitness trainer, an employee and a friend — and asked them to write personal checks to the campaign of Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, in 2011. The illegal practice, known as straw contributions, can be used to conceal the identity of a political donor.
In those three donations, Whalen exceeded the $4,000 contribution limit to a single candidate, prosecutors said. In addition, they said, he exceeded the $10,000 total contribution limit in a four-year election cycle — along with the $7,500 to Friends of Tom Quirk, he gave $4,000 to the campaign of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, and $250 to the campaign of Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican.
"Your honor, I screwed up," Whalen told Circuit Administrative Judge John G. Turnbull II. "It was simply a very dumb move on my part."
Prosecutors said they uncovered no evidence that Quirk or his campaign officers knew the donations were straw contributions. Quirk was not accused of a crime.
Still, email exchanges between Whalen and Quirk, presented at the court hearing, show the two discussed fundraising and potential contributions at the same time the councilman was reviewing plans for one of the developer's projects.
Whalen told the judge he regrets the embarrassment he has caused his family, his employees and Quirk.
Quirk "is completely blameless and I am embarrassed to have put him under the lens here," Whalen said.
His attorney, Andrew Jay Graham, said Whalen has "learned a very painful lesson." He noted letters from friends about Whalen's character, describing him as a generous man engaged in the community.
Turnbull sentenced Whalen to up to a year of unsupervised probation, which would end when Whalen pays fines and court costs. Whalen said he planned to pay the money Thursday. He was granted probation before judgment, which means he can have his record expunged if he fulfills the requirements of his probation.
After the hearing, Whalen said he intends to move forward with a controversial medical office project in Catonsville, the Southwest Physicians Pavilion. Some area residents have fought the project, and opponents have filed a motion for a mistrial of the zoning case because of Whalen's charges.
In court, Deputy State Prosecutor Thomas "Mike" McDonough read emails between Quirk and Whalen and described the timeline of the developer's contributions.
In August 2011, prosecutors said, Whalen was seeking "planned unit development" status for Southwest Physicians Pavilion — a category that exempts projects from certain zoning regulations if they provide community benefits. For the PUD process to move forward, Quirk had to sponsor a resolution authorizing the county to review the plans.
The county's yearlong comprehensive zoning process was set to begin that September, and council members had agreed not to raise money during that period, prosecutors said.
The emails showed that in late August, Quirk — elected in 2010 — was concerned about how much money he was raising compared with other new members of the council, especially Marks. On Aug. 24, 2011, he emailed Whalen to ask whether he could meet to discuss fundraising.
In emails that evening, Whalen said he would be happy to meet. He mentioned an upcoming Quirk fundraiser, and wrote, "We can help you, completely legally of course, within the bounds of campaign finance requirements, raise some $$$ to boost the returns shown for this event."
On Aug. 25, Whalen wrote to Quirk with details of how much Marks had raised at an event the previous evening.
"Whenever you want, Tom. You da boss," Whalen wrote. "If you want us to raise some $$ for you by next Wed, you need to let me know asap...like by tomorrow."
Quirk replied, "Yes...that would be great."