U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, the supposedly well-heeled front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, has told supporters that her $700,000 campaign fund has dwindled below $50,000 and is pleading for a huge infusion of new contributions.
"I must have your support now. And I will never forget it," Mrs. Bentley said in a handwritten notation on a fund-raising letter sent to potential donors this month.
In the body of the letter, called an "URGENTGRAM," Mrs. Bentley makes a similar point: "The enclosed note from my campaign treasurer tells the story -- I don't have suffi- cient funds on hand to run my campaign the way I must run it in order to win. I need $100,000 by August 5."
Enclosed in the mailing is a copy of a handwritten memo, dated July 13 and purportedly from Bentley campaign treasurer Larry M. Epstein, that supports her cry for help.
Under the letterhead "From the desk of Larry M. Epstein," the memo says: "We have less than $50,000 in the bank." It urges Mrs. Bentley to "get an urgent message out to our friends" and ends with a chummy aside: "P.S. Good press in today's Washington Post!"
In response to a question, Bentley spokesman Key Kidder said Mr. Epstein, an accountant, did not write the memo.
"It is my understanding that he didn't write the note per se, but he authorized the use of his name," Mr. Kidder said. "He basically signed off on it. . . . I gather this is not an uncommon fund-raising technique."
Mr. Kidder said the package was produced by a direct mail company retained by the Bentley campaign but that he did not know the company's name. "I consider the gist of the note to be accurate," he said.
Mr. Epstein did not return repeated calls to his office yesterday.
Mr. Kidder said the dip below $50,000 was a "ballpark" figure for July 13, the date of the memo. Since then, he said, fund-raising has picked up, thanks to an independent Mason-Dixon poll published last week that showed Mrs. Bentley well ahead of two Republican opponents.
The memo and Mrs. Bentley both refer to a Federal Election Commission (FEC) filing date or deadline of Aug. 5 as the date by which the congresswoman says she "simply must have $100,000 in the bank." There is no reason given for the $100,000 figure.
As a candidate for state office, Mrs. Bentley is not required to file with the FEC, which deals with candidates for federal office.
Mrs. Bentley's finance reports are to be filed with the state election board in Annapolis. Her first report, covering receipts and expenditures through Aug. 9, is due Aug. 16, not Aug. 5, said Rebecca M. Wicklund, a spokesman for the board.
It is not clear where the Aug. 5 date came from. Even if Mrs. Bentley were a federal candidate, filing would not be due until Oct. 1, said Ian Stirton, an FEC spokesman.
Retired foreign service officer William S. Shepard, one of Mrs. Bentley's two rivals for the GOP nomination, called the letter "hopelessly screwed up."
"She confuses a state campaign with a federal campaign, gets the filing deadline wrong and says she's required to file reports to the FEC," he said. "Is this a campaign or is this a campaign?"
The chief fund-raiser for House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey of Baltimore County, Mrs. Bentley's other opponent, took a different tack.
"It's amazing that a candidate who touts superior financing as one of her greatest strengths would be so inept as to announce that she has less than $50,000 in the bank," said Carol L. Hirschburg. "It means that Helen either hasn't raised the big bucks that she's claimed or that her campaign spending is out of control. Neither option speaks well for her candidacy."
Mrs. Bentley told The Sun July 7 that her fund-raising was going "very well" and that she had raised nearly $700,000 since declaring her candidacy for governor in November.
Asked how Mrs. Bentley had spent an estimated $650,000, Mr. Kidder said, "Running a statewide campaign for governor is terribly expensive."
As an example, he said, the campaign maintains a headquarters office and four local offices, and plans to open a fifth Saturday.