By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun
6:59 PM EST, December 21, 2012
A prominent Catonsville developer accused of channeling $7,500 in illegal contributions to a Baltimore County councilman and exceeding the total campaign contribution limit for individuals was charged Thursday with violating campaign contribution laws.
The criminal charges against Stephen W. Whalen Jr., 62, of Whalen Properties stem from contributions made to Catonsville-area Councilman Tom Quirk, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Towson-area Councilman David Marks.
Whalen has reached a plea agreement with prosecutors, according to his lawyer, who declined to offer details.
The case could have implications for a medical office development in Catonsville being planned by Whalen. Residents fighting the plan say they hope the criminal charges against the developer will help them halt the project.
Prosecutors said Whalen broke state election laws by funneling cash to three people to give to Quirk's campaign — an illegal practice known as "straw contributions." Whalen also is charged with exceeding the $10,000 total contribution limit that donors are allowed to give collectively in a four-year election cycle.
Whalen told The Baltimore Sun on Thursday that he is "contrite" about giving money to others to contribute. He called it a bad decision and said he "can't run away from my responsibility for it."
"I knew that it was wrong, and I did it anyway," he said. "The only person with any responsibility in this entire thing is Steve Whalen. ... Nobody else did anything wrong except me."
His attorney, Andrew Jay Graham, said no hearing date has been set.
Whalen was charged with five counts in Baltimore County Circuit Court. Three charges of improperly channeling money to Quirk are each punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Two counts of breaking contribution limits are each punishable by one year in jail and a $25,000 fine.
Whalen is a well-known and controversial figure in Catonsville. While some local residents criticized his hefty contributions to politicians, others have lauded his business vision.
The state prosecutor's office investigates matters of public corruption and misconduct, election law violations and other crimes.
"Strict enforcement of the existing campaign finance laws is the public's only protection from the corrupting influence of the enormous sums of money spent on the election of candidates," State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said in a statement. "Those who blatantly violate those laws will be held strictly accountable for their violations."
Prosecutors allege that in the late summer of 2011, Whalen gave $2,500 in cash each to three people in exchange for their personal checks for contributions to Friends of Tom Quirk. In giving the money, he also exceeded the $4,000 contribution limit to a single candidate, they said.
Prosecutors also allege that he violated the law when he contributed $4,000 to the Committee for Kevin Kamenetz and $250 to Friends of David Marks in addition to the $7,500 given to Friends of Tom Quirk. That total exceeded the $10,000 limit.
In a statement Thursday, Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, said that when he and his campaign "learned that three contributions were not accurately identified, we immediately contacted the State Election Board."
Quirk said the contributions have been returned and that he fully cooperated with investigators. He thanked the state prosecutor for an "aggressive investigation."
"Our campaign disclosure laws exist to protect the public's right to know the true identity of donors and to enforce state limits on contributions," Quirk said. "I am deeply disappointed that Mr. Whalen violated his disclosure obligations both to the public and to our campaign. ... I do not intend to let this incident distract me from continuing the work I was proudly elected to do."
Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said he was not contacted by investigators. In a statement, he said he "did not receive any contribution that was inappropriate at the time it was given."
"Although I am not required to do so, I will return the $250 donation to Mr. Whalen," Marks said.
Kamenetz's campaign treasurer could not immediately be reached for comment.
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.
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