Howard County Executive Ken Ulman wanted to give back $34,000 in campaign contributions he received from insurance executive Jeffrey B. Cohen, who was indicted last month on federal fraud charges.
Except he didn't want the money to end up back in Cohen's coffers.
Ulman instead sought permission from the state Board of Elections to allow his campaign to give the money to charity, rather than return it to Cohen. That is currently prohibited by Maryland law — which requires that political contributions be used to run campaigns — but this week his campaign received a waiver allowing him to give Cohen's contributions to the Maryland Crime Victims Network and the United Way of Central Maryland.
The campaign decided not to keep the money after learning in recent news reports of the allegations against Cohen, it said in a statement. "Given the circumstances we do not believe the money should be refunded to Mr. Cohen," the statement said.
Cohen is being held in federal detention on a charge of giving false statements to regulators. The former chairman of the Sparks-based Indemnity Insurance Corp., he has been accused in courts in Maryland and Delaware of misrepresenting the amount of cash his company had available to provide liability insurance to thousands of bars, restaurants and strip clubs across the country.
When agents raided his home and offices, according to court documents, they found notes and emails that read, among other things, "cash was embezzled." They also found an array of weapons and recordings that authorities say appeared to be a plot to harm the Delaware judge overseeing liquidation proceedings involving his company. Cohen told the agents he was writing a book, authorities said.
Though Cohen lives in Baltimore County and his business is located there, records show he directed more than $30,000 to Ulman's campaign from 2009 to 2012. That was before the Howard County executive became Democrat Anthony G. Brown's running mate in the race for governor.
The donations were made in Cohen's name and through various companies and limited liability corporations he owns, a means of avoiding state campaign finance laws that limit the amount an individual can give to a candidate.
He gave to only two other Maryland candidates — two donations totaling $6,000 to Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a Democrat who was running for governor, and another $2,000 in 2010 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Murphy.
Why the largesse to Ulman? Howard County officials said Cohen and his company had no transactions or dealings of any kind with the county, according to a review of vendor information, check registers, contractor documents and purchasing records.
The campaign said, however, that while Cohen and UIman do not know each other personally, they do know each other through efforts to save Merriweather Post Pavilion, the concert venue located in Columbia.
Merriweather officials did not respond to questions about Cohen's possible connections to the venue.
Cohen's attorney could not be reached to comment Wednesday.
A decade ago, with bookings at the venue tailing off, owner General Growth threatened to close Merriweather, then announced plans to convert the venue into a smaller enclosed amphitheater, which would have ended its outdoor concerts. The plan to develop Columbia's downtown also recommended building on Merriweather's parking lot.
Ulman fought plans to downsize Merriweather when he was on the County Council, and as executive has pushed its owners to upgrade the facility.
As for Gansler, who received donations from Cohen in 2011 and 2013, as well as a contribution from a business partner of Cohen, a spokeswoman said Cohen's contributions came when he was not under scrutiny, and have since been spent.
"When Mr. Cohen contributed to the campaign three years ago and again over a year ago, no criminal charges had been brought against him. Had there been, we would not have accepted the contributions," spokeswoman Antigone Davis said. "Obviously, that money has since been spent in the recent gubernatorial primary."
Davis said Gansler knows who Cohen is and believes he may have met him in passing on one occasion, but they had no business dealings and Cohen did not attempt to influence him.
Gansler — who lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary to Brown — had proposed last year that the gubernatorial campaigns sign a pledge in which they would donate campaign money to charity if an organization other than the campaign spent money on radio or television ads on their behalf. The Brown campaign rejected the proposal, noting the prohibition in the law.
Murphy couldn't be reached to comment Wednesday.
Cohen's donations to Ulman, Gansler and Murphy were not his only foray into politics. He has blamed the regulatory actions against his company on his political support for an opponent of Delaware's elected insurance commissioner, Karen Weldin Stewart.
Stewart, who has declined to comment, previously denied the accusation, telling The Daily Record that she "wouldn't even know who Mr. Cohen was. … It's a campaign. It's not that important."
In records filed in U.S. District Court, federal agents say Cohen appeared to be targeting for violence the Delaware judge overseeing his case, as well as an unnamed "elected official" in Delaware.
Cohen, who owns three million-dollar homes, is being represented by a public defender, typically reserved for indigent defendants.
After the appointment, U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy J. Sullivan wrote July 14 that Cohen "may have sufficient resources to contribute financially toward the payment of counsel fees" and may have to pay for his attorney at the conclusion of his legal proceedings.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun