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News Opinion Editorial

In Md. governor's race, the pot calls the kettle black [Editorial]

Last week, the Maryland Democratic Party took a swipe at Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan for his decision to use public campaign financing during the primary and general elections, noting in a news release that Mr. Hogan, "who often claims to be the only candidate who will protect tax dollars, received over $320,000 in taxpayer funds for the Republican primary and nearly $2.6 million for the general election." But a story today in the Washington Post about the free flow of campaign contributions from the owner of one of Maryland's casino licenses to the coffers of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, and his running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, offers a reminder of just how wise an investment public campaign financing is.

The Democratic party is trying to make hay out of the idea that some of those taxpayer funds (donated willingly, incidentally, through a check-off box on state income tax returns) wound up in Mr. Hogan's own pocket because his campaign bought out Change Maryland, the advocacy organization he owned and ran before declaring his candidacy for office, to the tune of $80,000. The party's news release highlighted a pledge by Del. Dereck E. Davis, the Economic Matters Committee chairman and a Brown supporter, to introduce legislation to close what he termed the "Hogan Loophole" and prevent publicly funded candidates "from making a profit on the side from their campaigns."

The Change Maryland-to-Hogan-campaign transition is certainly peculiar in the annals of Maryland campaigns, and it begs some questions. Most importantly, because the state Board of Elections has no real authority to regulate exploratory activity before a candidate officially enters a race, Change Maryland's election-related activity, such as commissioning a poll, did not trigger any reporting requirements. As such, we don't know anything about its contributors or expenditures during the period when it was conducting efforts to test the waters for a Hogan candidacy. That's not a special problem related to Change Maryland but a broader loophole in Maryland finance law that needs to be closed.

As for whether taxpayer funds wound up in Mr. Hogan's pocket, that's a debatable proposition since most of the money he raised and spent during the primary came through private campaign contributions. How the Hogan campaign and Change Maryland arrived at the $80,000 price tag is a question worth exploring, as are some of the allegations of technical violations of election law in the transition between Change Maryland and the Hogan campaign.

But much more glaring is the compliance in technicality but flagrant violation in spirit by the Brown/Ulman campaign of a law designed to prevent casino owners from contributing to candidates for office.

The Post's John Wagner reported today that companies affiliated with or controlled by Ocean Downs owner William M. Rickman Jr. have donated $32,000 to Messrs. Brown and Ulman since the state's prohibition on contributions by casino licensees went into effect on Oct. 1, 2012. Those contributions were part of $86,000 overall that Rickman companies have given to a variety of candidates since then, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

The General Assembly enacted the restriction on casino contributions at the urging of Mr. Brown's boss, Gov. Martin O'Malley, on the grounds that gambling money had such a powerful and corrosive influence on politics that it needed to be banned. Mr. O'Malley wanted a fairly broad restriction, covering not just casino licensees but other key employees, but what the legislature eventually passed was so watered-down, it seems, as to be almost useless. So long as Mr. Rickman does not write a personal check or one from the specific business that owns the casino (which he hasn't since October 2012), he enjoys a nearly unencumbered ability to wield his influence through contributions to his favored candidates. The best defense of this loophole that recipients of his largesse have been able to muster is that it is not illegal and that Mr. Rickman has other interests besides casino gambling.

Which brings us back to Mr. Hogan and his use of public campaign financing. The Democratic Party would have us believe there is something wasteful or even shady about Mr. Hogan's acceptance of public funds. But if he is elected, he will be beholden to no one except for those Marylanders who voluntarily contributed a few dollars when they filed their taxes every year. Their motivation, presumably, was to ensure good government. Can we say the same for those who are funding Mr. Brown's campaign?

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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