State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh has repeatedly solicited campaign contributions from lobbyists who are working on bills before her Senate committee, a rival candidate for Baltimore mayor said Wednesday.
Lawyer Elizabeth Embry's campaign released a 19-page analysis of contributions from lobbyists to Pugh's campaign. Embry says Pugh has collected $13,600 from lobbyists and organizations testifying on bills before the Senate Finance Committee, on which Pugh sits.
Such donations are permitted for candidates running for local office but illegal for those seeking state office.
"This is clearly exploiting a loophole," said Embry, a high-ranking lawyer in the state attorney general's office. "It's clearly against the spirit of the law."
Pugh has defended the contributions as legal. Her spokesman dismissed Embry's criticism over the donations as "negative campaigning."
"The race for mayor has come down to two candidates and one of them is not Elizabeth Embry," Pugh spokesman Anthony McCarthy said. "Senator Pugh will not be distracted by negative campaigning and is focused on moving Baltimore forward and discussing the issues that impact the people of this city."
Pugh has collected $5,500 from lobbyist Gerard E. Evans, who testified on one bill before Pugh's committee; $1,250 from the lobbying firm Greenfield & Kress, which has testified on six bills before Pugh's committee; and $850 from lobbyist Rob Garagiola and an associate, who have testified on eight bills in front of Pugh's committee.
Government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland called the contributions a concern.
"Common Cause Maryland has been concerned about this loophole for some time," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of the group. "Pugh is definitely taking advantage of it, but so did several candidates during the 2014 elections, and so are our federal candidates this election. Allowing local and federal candidates to skirt the donations during session opens the door to donors influencing policy decisions and the loophole should be closed."
Evans, one of the top-paid lobbyists in the state, called Embry's attacks "desperate."
"As a lawyer, she should know the difference between a loophole and the law," Evans said. "Show me a politician, and I'll show you a solicitor of campaign contributions."
Candidates in the Democratic primary for mayor have shifted their attacks in recent weeks from former Mayor Sheila Dixon to Pugh. The two women were virtually tied for the lead in a poll conducted this month for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.
For months, two groups — a super PAC called Clean Slate Baltimore and a nonprofit called Baltimore Rising — have pushed anti-Dixon material. The PAC has run negative ads and passed out fliers with a mock mug shot of Dixon. The nonprofit has raised questions about Dixon's campaign finance reports.
Dixon left office in 2010 after a jury found her guilty of misdemeanor embezzlement involving the theft of gift cards prosecutors say were intended for charity. She was never arrested or incarcerated.
The PAC is funded by a labor union that has endorsed Pugh.
"Once they endorsed Cathy Pugh, they followed up with the distribution of a fake mug shot of Sheila Dixon," Dixon spokeswoman Martha McKenna said. "Senator Pugh's allies created a false document to attack Sheila Dixon, which is totally out of bounds."
But in recent weeks, Pugh has increasingly become the focus of criticism. She's run her campaign promoting her character. One Pugh flier stresses that she is "honest" and "trustworthy" with "unquestioned integrity." The Sun's poll found that Pugh performs best among voters who view honesty and integrity as their top issues for a mayor.
City Councilman Nick J. Mosby, another top candidate, has been criticizing Pugh over $66,000 in bad checks her campaign received — some from entities opponents allege are shell companies — and thousands from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which is locked in a dispute with the Rawlings-Blake administration over increased fees charged on an underground conduit system.
"The way people manage their campaign is a good indication of how they will govern," Mosby said. "Ms. Pugh has had consistent legal and ethical questions regarding her fundraising tactics and her staff. The people of Baltimore City deserve better."
Donald F. Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said he doubted the criticism of Pugh would stick.
"She is the front-runner and seems to have the momentum to pull this thing off," Norris said. "Pugh has been around a long time, and I've never heard anything to suggest she did anything untoward. These are probably acts of desperation that probably won't harm Pugh."