Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's campaign committee plans to keep a $4,000 donation from the Catonsville developer who was charged this week with violating state campaign finance laws, its treasurer said Friday.
Two county councilmen who also received contributions that led to criminal charges against Stephen W. Whalen Jr. say they've returned the money or plan to do so. Kamenetz's campaign treasurer, Charles Klein, said the organization doesn't "have any information that we need to do that at this point in time."
Whalen, of Whalen Properties, was charged Thursday with illegally funneling $7,500 to Councilman Tom Quirk's campaign by giving cash to three people who in turn wrote personal checks to the campaign. State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt also charged Whalen with exceeding the limit of $10,000 in donations by an individual in an election cycle — allegations that stemmed from donations to Kamenetz, Quirk and Councilman David Marks.
"The contribution that Mr. Whalen made to Mr. Kamenetz's campaign, as far as we know, was within the legal limits of $4,000 for our campaign," Klein said. Under state law, a donor can give up to $4,000 to an individual candidate in an election cycle.
Quirk said he has returned the money; Marks said he plans to mail a check to Whalen this weekend.
Klein added, "My understanding … is that some other contributions have been returned, which may bring Mr. Whalen into compliance now with the $10,000 cycle limit. Certainly, if he is no longer in compliance and we need to return any or all of that money, we will do so."
Democrat Kamenetz's most recent campaign finance report, filed nearly a year ago, showed a balance of about $138,000. Through a spokesman, Kamenetz referred requests for comment about the Whalen donation to his campaign.
Although only Whalen has been accused of any wrongdoing, in the minds of the public, the charges could cast a cloud over local politicians, said Matthew A. Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.
"Americans have deeply entrenched skepticism about government, and something like this serves as a symbolic reinforcement of the beliefs that they already have," Crenson said. "That the rich get richer, money runs the government."
Crenson said the county officials have no legal obligation to return the money. He said he couldn't predict how people would feel about Kamenetz's decision to keep the money.
"It's hard to tell how people will react, or even if they'll notice," he said.
Kamenetz's committee received a $4,000 contribution in March 2011, according to charging documents in the Whalen case. Marks' campaign received $250 that August, and Quirk's campaign received the three $2,500 contributions in late August and September 2011, the documents say.
James Browning, regional director of the watchdog group Common Cause, said his organization believes that any candidates who received money before a donor broke individual limits for an election cycle should be able to keep the money.
"As far as we're concerned, that's a fair way to do it," he said.
The bigger issue, Browning said, is Maryland's so-called "LLC loophole," which allows one person or company to skirt contribution limits by channeling money to candidates through multiple limited liability companies.
"In fairness, if you looked at all of the donors, and especially the developers, funneling money through their businesses and LLCs, you would see a lot more elected officials who get a lot more than the limit" because of that loophole, he said. "The loopholes in the laws make everyone — the donors and the candidates — look bad. … They're enjoying a system where one developer can exert a huge amount of influence, and they can enjoy all that money."
Marks said he was returning the money "because I think that a state prosecutor's investigation is a serious matter."
"The public knows I make independent decisions and I often go against developers," the Perry Hall Republican said. "My constituents know that I am an independent-minded councilman and that I'm going to make decisions that are in the best interest of the communities I represent."
Marks' campaign said it would give back the check "to avoid any possible conflicts."
Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, released a statement Thursday saying he has returned the money and is "deeply disappointed" in Whalen. He did not return a message seeking further comment Friday.
Whalen's lawyer said he has worked out a plea deal with prosecutors; a court hearing hasn't yet been set. After Whalen was charged, the developer told The Baltimore Sun he accepts full responsibility for his actions, which he knew were wrong.
Even as the developer faces criminal charges, Whalen Properties is seeking approval to build a four-story medical office building on a 2.5-acre site on Kenwood Avenue off the Baltimore Beltway.
A county administrative law judge is considering whether to approve plans for the Catonsville project, called the Southwest Physicians Pavilion. An area community association has fought the proposal.
Administrative Law Judge John E. Beverungen has asked attorneys on both sides to submit closing arguments in writing by Jan. 2. His decision on whether to approve plans for the project is expected in mid-January.