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Companies pour money into Baltimore mayor's race, despite new law

City Hall in Baltimore, Md.
City Hall in Baltimore, Md. (Jon Sham /)

Government watchdog groups cheered in 2013 when the General Assembly closed the so-called LLC loophole, passing a law preventing business owners from having outsized influence in Maryland elections by donating to political campaigns through small corporations.

But donations in this year's mayoral race — the first test of the new law — show the reform is having little effect, a review by The Baltimore Sun found.

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Donors and the companies they own are giving to mayoral candidates through businesses located at the same address. Examples include:

•Developer Armando Cignarale — who tried unsuccessfully to build a 23-story tower along Canton's waterfront — and his family have given $24,000 to state Sen. Catherine Pugh's campaign. On top of that, Cignarale's Timonium-based Cignal Corp. and three other businesses at the same address have given $12,000 to Pugh.

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•Donors with ties to real estate developer David S. Cordish, the owner of Maryland Live Casino, have given more than $60,000 to lawyer Elizabeth Embry's mayoral campaign, including six companies that gave about $6,000 each from the address of The Cordish Cos. headquarters.

•Three companies that list Pless B. Jones Sr., a major demolition contractor, as their resident agent gave a combined $18,000 to former Mayor Sheila Dixon. Since leaving office, Dixon has worked for Jones, who is president of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association.

Each campaign argues that the donations are perfectly legal and points to a caveat: The law applies only if at least 80 percent of the business giving the donation is owned or controlled by an entity that has already given a maximum donation.

Limited-liability corporations do not have to list an owner or make their books public.

The Embry campaign said it flagged donations from the Cordish-affiliated firms and sent a letter informing company officials of the new law before agreeing to accept the donations.

"We went above and beyond what we're required to do to make sure each of our donors is in compliance," said Steve Kaiser, Embry's campaign spokesman.

The Dixon campaign said that even though Jones is listed as the resident agent for the three companies, he owns one, owns less than 80 percent of a second one and his son owns the third.

Pugh said she does not personally police each of her contributions but trusts that her donors do not violate the law.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said she is disappointed that the law does not seem to be limiting contributions from LLCs.

"We're concerned that the law is just being ignored," she said. "Clearly, the legislature needs to take action by requiring more transparency or enforcement."

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