According to charging documents, Whalen gave $2,500 each to Michele Mandel, Diane Underwood and Darryl R. Hitt in exchange for their writing checks for those amounts to Quirk's campaign. None of the three could be reached for comment Thursday.

"Mr. Hitt is employed by Mr. Whalen and the other two are acquaintances," said James I. Cabezas, the chief investigator in the prosecutor's office.

Whalen said the people he gave money to had no knowledge of any wrongdoing.

"It's my responsibility," he said.

State laws on exceeding campaign contribution limits are "directed to the contributor and not to the recipient of the funds," Cabezas said. "The person violating the law is the person who over-contributes and not the campaign committee receiving."

In a profile by The Baltimore Sun this year, Whalen said political contributions "come with the business" and that there has "never, ever been a quid pro quo" between him and an elected official.

"Obviously, you support those people whose philosophy you buy into and who conceptually are supportive of what you're doing," he said at the time.

"The idea of being a lightning rod doesn't bother me in the least," he said in The Sun interview. "In this business, it's about being a visionary, and that's what I've tried to be."

Campaign contribution limits are meant to keep a person or company from having undue influence over an election and officials, said James Browning, regional director of the watchdog group Common Cause.

"The bigger problem now is that the state actually encourages people to play fast and loose through its weak campaign laws," he said. "This kind of thing goes on all the time. He just may have been clumsier than other donors."

Whalen's company is in the midst of proceedings before a county administrative law judge who is considering whether to approve plans for a project called the Southwest Physicians Pavilion in Catonsville. A community association has fought his plans for a proposed four-story medical office building over a three-story parking garage, to be built on a 2.5-acre site on Kenwood Avenue off the Beltway.

Graham, Whalen's attorney, said the criminal case "should have no bearing on it because it's unrelated."

But at the last hearing for the project, held early this month, a lawyer for the Kenwood Gardens Condominium Association called for a mistrial in light of the state's investigation, which was revealed to the public when county agencies received subpoenas for correspondence between Whalen and county officials as well as other documents.

Administrative Law Judge John E. Beverungen asked attorneys on both sides to submit closing arguments in writing by Jan. 2. He did not rule on the motion for mistrial. His decision on whether to approve plans for the project is expected in mid-January.

The community group's lawyer, J. Carroll Holzer, said Thursday that he would file another motion for a mistrial now that Whalen has been charged criminally.

"At this point, I believe this plan should be denied," Holzer said. "Let's go back and start all over again."

Holzer said many county residents feel that the development process favors developers over communities, and this case "stirs up those feelings."

"Community associations, in general, do not have the resources at all to be able to match the amount of money of a developer," he said. "There's an imbalance in terms of who gets access to the elected officials."

Whalen's company was founded in 1980. It has developed office buildings in southwestern Baltimore County and in Howard County, as well as residential communities in Catonsville.

alisonk@baltsun.com

twitter.com/aliknez