Companies seeking lucrative state contracts and business deals in Maryland made five- and six-figure contributions in recent months to a Democratic governors group led by Gov. Martin O'Malley, federal records show.

Firms making large gifts to the Democratic Governors Association in the last six months of 2011 include bidders for a $2.4 billion state employee health contract, a $56 million deal to rebuild highway rest stops and the license to run Baltimore's slots casino.

O'Malley, who has been the association's chairman since December 2010, has said the contributions have nothing to do with his decisions as governor. "We work very hard to keep the DGA activity and the state activity separate," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

Indeed, at least two of the contributors seeking state contracts have not won the support of the O'Malley administration.

But the head of a government watchdog group says the contributions are nonetheless troubling.

"I certainly think citizens have a reason to be concerned that these contributions are intended to influence outcomes," Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

"Companies, especially if they're giving out of their own corporate treasuries, are intending to curry favor," she said.

The contributions to the association from July 1 to Dec. 31, 2011, are listed in a report released this week by the Internal Revenue Service. The report shows:

•Maryland-based Catalyst Rx, which is fighting to keep a $2.4 billion state prescription drug contract, gave $100,000 in October. It marked the first time the company has contributed to the Democratic governors group, IRS records show.

•Caesars Entertainment, which is trying to win a state license to open a casino in Baltimore, contributed $50,000 in late December. The company previously has directed its gifts to the DGA's Republican counterpart.

•Another Maryland firm, HMS Host, gave $35,000 to the Democratic group in 2011. The donations came as state officials were considering whether to let the company continue to run two rest stops on Interstate 95.

Gulfstream Park Racing Association Inc., owned by Maryland horse racing magnate Frank Stronach, donated $200,000 to the DGA in November. Stronach was the beneficiary of state legislation in 2011 that sent $6 million in state slots revenue to prop up racing at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course. The tracks stand to get another $6 million through legislation this year.

The donations follow a pattern, reported last year in The Baltimore Sun, of companies with interests before Maryland government giving large amounts of money to the governors association after O'Malley took its helm.

During the first half of 2011, Exelon, the energy giant seeking state approval to merge with Constellation Energy, gave $250,000 — an amount 10 times greater than it had given the group in the past. It gave another $10,000 recently. Energy Answers, a waste-to-energy firm, gave $100,000 on the same day in May that O'Malley announced he would sign a controversial trash-burning bill worth millions to the company.

Contributions to the association — designed to help elect Democratic governors nationwide — don't benefit O'Malley directly because he is barred by term limits from seeking re-election. But his leadership of the association has enhanced his reputation as a possible candidate for higher office, political analysts say.

The Republican governors have a similar group. Both can accept unlimited donations — campaign finance limits do not apply — though the associations must disclose contributors twice a year and can't coordinate directly with individual gubernatorial campaigns.

O'Malley chaired the Democratic group for the first time last year, and he was re-elected to a rare second term in December.

In the last six months of 2011, the group raised $8.5 million. In total, the DGA pulled in $19.5 million last year, an amount that O'Malley said was record-breaking for that period in a four-year election cycle.

In the most recent report, the standout check came from Stronach's Gulfstream Park Racing Association, a Florida-based company. The $200,000 gift was the third-largest donation during the period.