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Maryland bail bond industry's contributions hang over contested bill

The economic clout of the bail bond industry hangs over a debate in the General Assembly that could decide the future of cash bail in Maryland.

As the legislature's 2017 session heads toward a close at midnight on April 10, bail reform remains one of the most hotly contested topics. And bail bond companies are among Maryland's biggest political campaign contributors.

According to a study released by Common Cause Maryland this year, bail bond companies and their key players contributed more than $288,000 to the campaigns of Maryland politicians between 2011 and 2016. Common Cause found the pace of those contributions picked up recently, with more than $135,000 given over the past two years.

The report found that Maryland ranks third among states in bail bond industry contributions, trailing only much larger California and Florida.

The debate among lawmakers follows the Court of Appeals' February adoption of a rule instructing lower courts to consider the ability of a defendant to pay when setting bail. The rule creates a list of alternative conditions for pretrial release but puts cash bail at the bottom.

The bail bond industry opposes that provision of the rule.

While the state Senate has passed a bill that would eliminate it, the House has not yet acted, so the issue remains unresolved.

The Common Cause study found that the chairmen of the Senate Judicial Proceedings and House Judiciary committees — which are considering bail reform legislation — were the second- and third-highest recipients of bondsmen's campaign contributions between 2011 and 2017. Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, received $78,200, Common Cause reported. Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, reported $45,500.

The industry has not reserved its gifts for Democrats. Sen. Michael J. Hough, a Frederick County Republican, received $19,000.

Zirkin and Hough played critical roles in shaping the Senate-passed bill. Another benefactor of the industry is Sen. C. Anthony Muse, the bill's Senate sponsor. Muse, who defended the bill vigorously before the Legislative Black Caucus last week, received a $5,000 donation from the bond-writing Lexington National Insurance Corp., just days before the legislative session began in January.

The donation was part of an $18,750 flurry of donations Lexington National made in the week before the session convened. They included gifts of $3,500 to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who supports the bill, and $1,000 to House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who could influence its fate in the House.

The contributions have not always borne fruit. Baltimore Sen. Joan Carter Conway received $2,000 from the company the day before the session, but opposes the Senate bill.

Zirkin, like other lawmakers, disclaims any link between donations and legislative actions.

"I don't make decisions based on campaign contributions," he said. "I make [them] based on public policy."

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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