The Money Can Be Almost Impossible to Follow

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In a more perfect world, a concerned citizen could learn who has attempted to influence government in Maryland by examining reports of campaign contributions filed in Annapolis.

In the world as we know it, a thorough examination is beyond the capability of almost anyone.

"What we have now is available to the people, but it's indecipherable," says Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a Montgomery County Democrat.

The reports are all maintained in floor-to-ceiling gray file cabinets tended by gracious state employees whose professionalism does little to ease the monumental task awaiting any voter wishing to know who gave how much to whom.

Here is the basic dilemma:

Though contributors are limited to $4,000 per candidate and $10,000 for all candidates combined during any four-year election cycle, the limits are frequently misunderstood or ignored, and tracing the total contributions of any giver is difficult -- if not impossible. A complete accounting is available only to those with the time and patience to wade through hundreds of documents. The information is available in stupefying detail. There are accounts for Senator Doaks and all the would-be Doakses. There are accounts for slates that include Doaks and his team. There are "continuing" accounts for the longtime office seekers and "campaign" accounts for the one-time-only candidates. There are accounts for political action committees. Parties have accounts. Each folder is oppressively thick and filled with numbers that purport to track the receipt and expenditure of money.

And an individual giver may contribute to all of these entities -- as long as the contributions do not exceed certain maximums. To know whether anyone spread illegal amounts of money, though, is next to impossible if the giver was reasonably prudent and distributed the money wisely. Too many accounts to check. Too little time.

Welcome to the Maryland General Assembly's version of disclosure. Legislators always argue that tighter controls on contributions are not necessary because everything is done in the open.

But real disclosure, says Delegate Dembrow along with others, awaits computerization.

Though it is 1995, neither the legislature nor any governor so far has taken the responsibility for putting the reports into a computer capable of tracking contributors and contributions in an instant.

Individual candidates often keep computerized records. But the election board is not prepared to receive the computer disks where the information is stored.

Without computers, the checking cannot be systematic -- with the possible exception of the work done by Common Cause/Maryland, whose volunteers frequently find interesting examples of generous and sometimes illegal giving. Cases of over-contribution are occasionally found by reporters acting on tips.

A recent case involves Willie Runyon, an ambulance company owner. Personally and through his company, Mr. Runyon accounted for $32,000 in contributions during the past four-year election cycle. Records show he personally gave at least $16,000 to various candidates. His generosity took him $6,000 beyond the $10,000 limit. His company, American Ambulance, also blew past the maximum, giving another $16,000 to various candidates.

Mr. Runyon, his daughter and his company gave $95,000 to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who was forced to raise money for legal fees when last November's election was challenged. That $95,000 was not subject to the campaign contribution limits.

Mr. Runyon, whose company does considerable business with the state, also gave $4,000 to state Sen. Larry Young, who is an employee of Mr. Runyon's company -- and chairman of a Senate health panel. Mr. Runyon says he hopes his money will insulate Mr. Young from lobbying pressures.

Mr. Runyon, of course, is one giver among thousands. To check them all would take an army of Common Cause troops. Or one computer.

And still, the House Committee on Commerce and Government Matters recently voted to reject computerization as proposed by Delegate Dembrow once again, even though this year's proposal would not have gone into effect until 1999. "I don't think I can water it down any more," the delegate said.

Though this is a new legislature with new members imbued with the reformer's ethic, the idea of putting election data on computer storage disks "didn't generate a lot of discussion," according to Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Washington County Democrat. Computerization was set aside to be reviewed this summer, when the Assembly looks at an array of election process concerns.

Change may promote disclosure, but it always brings something else to report, a new deadline to meet -- all to be done by the candidate's volunteer finance chairman.

"The law is complex and difficult to comply with. A lot of us would like more disclosure, but we don't want to get to the point where good people won't serve on our finance committees because they don't know what's OK and what's not OK," Delegate Poole said.

It's worse than that, says Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. The computerization bill died by a unanimous vote of the Committee on Commerce and Government Matters.

"I asked some freshmen what happened to the computerization bill and they said, 'I didn't even know I voted against it.' "

When it comes to real change, she says, "No candidate is interested in having their campaign contributions more open to the public."

The freshman legislators, Ms. Povich says, have not lost their zest for change. But, "they've found the laws complicated and difficult to deal with in part because there's no leadership." Without leadership, every incremental attempt at change is vulnerable to manipulation and early death, she said.

Manipulation is the name of the game with the law as it stands today.

Two examples, among many:

* Corporations can send money through various sub-groups. Unless the subsidiary is wholly owned by the parent, that sub-company can give as much as the parent.

"It's a way of getting around the maximums, which were intended to limit the amount of influence that any one individual should have in the political arena," Ms. Povich says.

* Reports are often filed in a form that makes analysis difficult: no separation of individuals and corporations; no alphabetizing. Reports do not include the occupation of the contributor or his employer, information required by the federal election law but not by Maryland's. An effort to require candidates to give such labeling a "best effort" was thought to be headed for defeat.

The Assembly may decide again this year to leave the law as it is and the records in the file cabinets. It will do so at its own peril, says Delegate Poole.

"You can't escape the fact that the public wants us to shape it up, to restore confidence in the system," he said. This is not a new thought, of course.

Delegate Dembrow says: "There may be those who don't want the public to know what's in these reports. But I would hate to suspect that."

D8 C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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