Money and Access Once More

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Now comes Baltimore lawyer Lalit Gadhia to answer inquiries of federal authorities who wonder whether he broke laws controlling the way money is raised for political campaigns.

Mr. Gadhia follows lobbyist, Bruce C. Bereano, into the glare of prosecutorial attention.

Until his indictment and changes in state law curbed his activities, Bereano was Maryland's prime mover of fund-raiser tickets. He has appealed his conviction on mail fraud charges -- flowing from campaign fund-raising activities -- and remains active on the Maryland circuit of $15-to-$250 bull roasts, golf tournaments and bay cruises.

Mr. Gadhia was finance director for Gov. Parris N. Glendening and an ally of Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

With the Gadhia investigation coming so quickly after Bereano's conviction and sentencing, Marylanders get another chance to think about the role of money in their politics. Both cases involve men who were working hard to expand their influence.

"I think the system needs a drastic overhaul," says Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat. But House Speaker Casper R. Taylor says the current campaign finance laws are adequately clear and strict. Mr. Taylor recently collected $200,000 at a fund-raiser.

"Government has established an extensive network of laws and regulations. Until a better system is devised, we ought to defend that system against cynicism and against abuse," he said.

Mr. Taylor conceded that some politicians use campaign contributions to determine who gains access to them. In a barb apparently aimed at Governor Glendening, he said:

"If a leading statewide official is using his or her extraordinary ability to raise money as an ultimate litmus test for being included in that politician's world, I think that politician is to be condemned."

A spokesman said the governor declined to comment.

Mr. Taylor, regarded as a potential challenger to Mr. Glendening in the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary, said he cautiously approaches fund raising.

"I try to stay on my guard when I'm dealing in that process. Nobody's ever had to buy a ticket of mine to get access to me in the 21 years I've been in this business." That sort of behavior in politics, he said, is "despicable."

As for challenges to the system's integrity, he pointed out that Mr. Gadhia is under investigation, but he has not been charged with a crime. And he is not convinced that Bereano strayed. The lobbyist was convicted of defrauding his clients of $16,000, billing them for entertainment expenses while using the money to reimburse others for campaign contributions.

"I've got some serious doubts about how fundamentally evil that was," the speaker said.

The U.S. attorney charged that the lobbyist had laundered campaign contributions to obscure their real origin: Bruce Bereano.

Some questions

Each of these episodes raises questions.

Why would a giver want to obscure the origin of his gift? The point, after all, is to be recognized.

True, but if the contributor has already handed over the legal limit -- "maxed out," in political parlance -- he or she must put away the checkbook. For Maryland elections, no individual or corporation may give more than $4,000 to a single candidate in any four-year election cycle. No one may give more than $10,000 to all candidates combined during that period.

To go beyond these maximums, one must find other avenues. Bereano was charged with going to third parties who were not "maxed out": They wrote the checks. He reimbursed them.

A federal grand jury is investigating claims by more than a dozen people who say Mr. Gadhia or his nephew asked them to write large checks to an obscure New Mexico political action committee known as the Indian-American Leadership Fund. The contributors say the two men reimbursed them.

"I asked him why he (Mr. Gadhia) wanted me to do it, and he said it was some kind of technicality in the law that limited how much any one individual could give to a PAC," a Baltimore lawyer told The Sun.

Mr. Gadhia, an immigration lawyer from Bombay, and his nephew deny the allegetations.

The PAC donated the money to members of congressional committees that oversee foreign aid, trade and immigration matters.

The checks -- $34,900 in all -- were mailed to the PAC by MrGadhia's office, records show.

Limits on individual and corporate contributions were established as a way to guard against the accumulation of undue influence in elections or legislative councils. Even before Watergate, there were attempts to curtail fund-raising practices that, in effect, defeat democracy, the guarantee that everyone gets the same treatment, contributor or not.

Because political campaigns produce an infinite number of circumstances in which money is sought and given, writing laws to control the process has been difficult. Bereano, again, was charged with using funds provided to him by clients for expenses to reimburse his designated contributors.

Why would anyone do what these two men are accused of doing? Jobs? Power? Influence?

Some give because they fear their absence will be noticed. Other givers may not be after any specific favor or vote, though often their objective is clear. For these givers, fund raising and contributing amount to investments that are cashed in when they can pay a hefty return.

Politicians value supporters who can be relied upon to raise substantial sums. They become part of the inside team -- appointed to posts of distinction. Lobbyists who raise big money move into roles as power brokers. In Bereano's case, this power brought him clients willing to pay large fees. He prospered in the system.

The schedule

The current fund-raising schedule includes these events:

* Annapolis Alderman Gerrie DeGraff will have a golf outing and fundraiser July 14 at the Eisenhower Golf Course. Tickets, $100.

* State Sen. Leo Green's picnic, baseball game and fund-raiser comes four days later at Rip's Pavilion. Tickets, $50.

* Baltimore Del. Elijah E. Cummings' "celebration" was last Wednesday at the Eubie Blake Museum. Tickets, $100.

* The Maryland Republican Party's 5th Annual Red, White and Blue Ball scheduled for this Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency. Tickets, $150.

* Tickets to Mr. Taylor's affair were $200.

It's all legal

All of this is legal, even healthy, participation in the political process. The U.S. Supreme Court equates campaign contributions to free speech. But the high court does say it is permissible to limit contributions so the political process is not subverted by the affluent.

But Mr. Pinsky would take private money out of the game altogether:

"We ought to have public funding of elections. We ought to take it out so there is no influence peddling."

Admitting that he has become a bit cynical about the system's ability to reform itself, he said: "The corrective steps the legislature took this past year, I couldn't even call them baby steps. Even in tightening requirements for reporting entertainment expenses paid by lobbyists, people took a walk. It was pretty shameful."

The Assembly did agree to continue public funding of gubernatorial elections. Mr. Glendening chose not to accept that money during the last election and, with private collections, outspent his opponent by a wide margin.

Mr. Pinsky said he is also cynical that more thoroughgoing change will come unless public officials have the courage to explain the advantages of public financing and support it themselves.

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

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