Athanasia Diakokomninos seems confused to be asked about her political donations. Standing behind the counter at breakfast time on February 18, the co-founder of Maria D's, a lunch counter and caterer located inside the Merritt Athletic Club in White Marsh, at first she thinks a reporter is asking her to donate to the campaign. She says she can't afford that extravagance.
When made to understand that, according to Board of Election records, M.C., LLC—the corporate entity under which Maria D's does business—has already donated $6,000 to State Senator Catherine Pugh's mayoral campaign, Diakokomninos scoffs: "Six thousand dollars? We don't even have $6,000."
"If we had $6,000," the other woman behind the counter says, "we'd be in Mexico."
According to the Pugh campaign's publicly available finance report, M.C., LLC, of 1006 Eastern Avenue in Baltimore, was one of 24 corporations and people that recorded the maximum donation to State Senator Catherine Pugh's campaign for Baltimore Mayor on January 13, the last day of the reporting period. This is in itself not remarkable: Pugh has raised more than $650,000—more than any other candidate running—as well might be expected for a powerful state senator with strong business ties in both Annapolis and Baltimore.
But M.C., LLC and a handful of others are unusual: either they don't exist at the recorded address—or, according to the State Department of Assessments and Taxation (SDAT), the repository of all legal companies operating in Maryland, they don't exist at all. Diakokomninos says her business has no connection to the 1000 block of Eastern Avenue. "Somebody's doing it without our knowledge," she concludes.
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the executive director of the political watchdog Common Cause Maryland, says the pattern in Pugh's campaign finance records is shocking.
"We have enough of a problem with legal LLCs donating money to campaigns," she says. "This crosses the line into clearly-illegal territory where you're creating fraudulent companies to funnel money into campaigns."
With those companies were several people with ties to Giovanna "Gia" Blatterman, long-time Little Italy fixture and political fund-raiser who has been known to play hardball. An attempted bribe of her when she was on the Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals landed Milton Tillman Jr. in prison in the early 1990s, and she sued a neighborhood rival for libel a few years later. Lawsuits over a neighborhood newsletter followed, and more recently a legal drama over the Little Italy Bocce court.
Some Pugh's $6,000 donors appear unlikely. Lauren Gugliuzza lives in a rental apartment at 1008 Eastern Avenue, a narrow, Formstone rowhouse that fronts a hair salon.
Online records indicate that Gugliuzza, 30 years old, is currently on probation for a disorderly conduct charge she was cited for last March. She was fined $500, but $400 of the fine was suspended. She says she gave Pugh the money, but won't say much more.
"I'm not sure why that would have anything to do with me," Gugliuzza says by telephone, "I like to keep my stuff private."
It almost was: in the campaign record her name was misspelled as "Gualuizza." Her occupation was mis-recorded as "state employee." She says she is actually self-employed. "I like Catherine and I'd like to see her win the election," Gugliuzza says. "That's all I have to say."
The little rental Gugliuzza occupies is deceptively prosperous—and generous. Nicholas Rossi, also of 1008 Eastern, donated another $6,000 to Pugh. And another $6,000 came from "Sophie Staffing, Inc.," at the same address.
There is no such corporation recorded in Maryland state records.
The building where Gugliuzza and Rossi live, and where "Sophie Staffing" and the state's second "M.C., LLC" is domiciled, is owned by European Upscale Redevelopment Organization, LLC, whose resident agent is Gia Blatterman's son, Eric.
Eric Blatterman gave Pugh's campaign $6,000—but under the name "Eric Blaise."
More $6,000 checks came from the 6000 block of Falls Road, where European Upscale Redevelopment Organization, LLC is domiciled.
"Rose Difett," of 6002 Falls Road gave $6,000. There is no such address in Baltimore, according to the SDAT real estate database—and no one by that name anywhere in the area.
City Paper was unable, during several days, to get a precise fix on the people and companies that gave these $6,000 donations. But most of it traced back to Blatterman.
Here's what the campaign reported, and how it checked-out:
Missing from the Secretary of State's online database of chartered Maryland companies (SDAT) is SFS, LLC, of 905 Eastern Avenue. (There are several similarly-named companies, but the only just-plain SFS, chartered by a Bethesda lawyer, Joseph Woytash, has no obvious connection to Baltimore or this address. "As far as I know it's not us," Woytash says, adding "I don't want me mentioned, or the entity mentioned.") SFS donated $6,000, as did Emily Kim of the same address. City Paper found no one home at 905 Eastern, which is a Formstone rowhouse across the street from Café Gia, the restaurant owned by Blatterman's daughter, who is also named Gia (and gave $6,000 to the Pugh campaign as well, she says). A man next door says there are three apartments in the little house, but he doesn't know the neighbors' names. We were unable to reach anyone at the address.
Spa K-P, another unchartered corporation, gave its $6,000.
Spa K-P's alleged home, 1600 Kelly Ave., used to be the address of Gia Blatterman's hair salon. For the past eight years it's been The Mount Washington Spa, which is not related to Blatterman, according to a woman who answers the phone there.
Pugh's campaign spokesman, Anthony McCarthy, declined to show City Paper copies of the checks or discuss the donations in detail. After further prompting, he emailed City Paper a short spreadsheet with more information about these donations. Emily Kim, for example, is there identified as "Emily Kim Kirby," a self-employed hairdresser. City Paper was unable to track her down under that name either.
The spreadsheet identifies Rose Difett as "Rose DiFatta Aquia," a self-employed consultant who is also Gia Blatterman's mother.
Maryland state election law, section 13-602, forbids campaign donations under false names. "A person may not directly or indirectly pay or promise to pay a campaign finance entity in a name other than the person's name," the section reads, in part. The campaign finance chair can't knowingly enter the wrong name in the account book.
Doing so is a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine, up to a year in prison, and a four-year ban from public office.
A mangled personal name or bogus corporation might be explainable, Bevan-Dangel of Common Cause says, "if you saw just one or two names (misspelled), or perhaps they just started their corporation." But the pattern in Pugh's finance forms is a red flag.
"Unfortunately the state prosecutor doesn't often get involved with this," Bevan-Dangel says, "but this is an example where we would hope they would take it seriously and investigate."
In an email, Pugh's campaign spokesman says there's nothing to see.
"Our campaign has received thousands of contributions from individual and corporate supporters in compliance with campaign finance laws," Anthony McCarthy writes. "Any misspellings or transcription errors that appear in the reporting system will be corrected."
Messages left for Blatterman at Café Gia and with her daughter were not immediately returned. We'll update this post if or when we speak to her.
According to the campaign's spreadsheet, Spa K-P is also known as "Spa Diartiste1" and "Spa Platinum," both operated or owned by Giovanna Blatterman. (Both are not listed in SDAT). The spreadsheet says S.F.S. and Sophie Staffing are both operated by Hyn Sook Kim, shedding no more light on the matter; and that MC, LLC is also known as "Mondo Kane"—and also owned by Giovanna Blatterman.
There are no results for "Mondo Kane" in the state Department of Assessments and Taxation corporate database. A Google search indicates "Mondo Kane" is a rock band hailing from Cologne, Germany. Its members could not be immediately reached for comment.