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."
On Aug. 30, Whalen withdrew $8,500 from Whalen Properties' bank account, prosecutors said. He approached Michele Mandel, Diane Underwood and Darryl R. Hitt, saying it would help him if he could give them cash in exchange for their checks to Quirk's campaign. Whalen personally delivered the checks to Quirk on Aug. 31, prosecutors said.
In September, Quirk sponsored the resolution for the PUD, and the council passed it the next month, prosecutors said.
Whalen told the judge that the people he gave the money to were "politically unsophisticated."
"Unfortunately, I used them," he said.
After the hearing, Whalen said he did not want contributions to Quirk traced back to him because development plans often spark controversy among residents, and he feared that opponents of his projects would use the political contributions against him.
"Part of the issue has just been that these things can be very testy," Whalen said. "At the end of the day, [campaign contributions to Quirk] would have been used to hurt me, hurt the project, hurt the councilman."
Whalen said Quirk had supported the Southwest Physicians Pavilion for nearly a year before the developer made the contributions. "There certainly was no quid pro quo," he said.
State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt called transparency "the cardinal principle of our campaign finance laws.
"That transparency is the public's only protection from the corrupting influence of the enormous sums of money spent on elections," he said in a statement.
Quirk said Thursday in a statement that his campaign was misled about the identities of the donors. "We reported our concerns to the State Election Board as soon as we became aware of it, cooperated fully with the State Prosecutor in its investigation of Mr. Whalen, and returned the contributions in full," Quirk said.
Marks also recently returned the donation from Whalen; Kamenetz's campaign has said it plans to keep it.
Whalen has given to politicians in both parties, and the state GOP called on them to return the money.
"Those who have received contributions from Stephen Whalen should follow the lead of Baltimore County Councilman David Marks and return his dirty contributions," Maryland Republican Party Executive Director David Ferguson said in a statement, noting that most of the donations went to Democrats.
Whalen said after the hearing that he would likely take "a hiatus for a while" from contributing money to politicians.