Man gave $252,227 in '91-'95 elections Campaign officials, state agencies fail to detect illegal gifts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Using a variety of devices to cover his tracks, a now-bankrupt Baltimore businessman poured at least $250,000 into national and state election campaigns during a five-year giving binge that made him one of the largest campaign contributors in Maryland.

Federal and state records show that from 1991 to 1995, Brian H. Davis, his family, his business ventures and his employees gave $252,227 to the Republican and Democratic parties, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and at least 19 other political candidates.

Davis' mother says her son was "buying love." But he also appears to have been breaking the law.

At least $75,000 of the Davis contributions were given in violation of state spending limits or in the names of relatives who had nothing to do with the gifts.

The story of Brian Davis is a primer on how to evade Maryland's election laws, which are tough in theory but toothless in practice.

While Davis gave liberally to national political campaigns, more than $170,000 of his contributions went to Maryland candidates, including $29,000 to Glendening and $57,825 to former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat, received $15,000, while $17,500 went to Republican Richard D. Bennett's unsuccessful campaign for attorney general.

In interviews, Davis admitted responsibility for virtually all of the donations The Sun discovered and said there were more that hadn't been found.

The giving spree ended in late 1995, when Davis' Baltimore trucking company collapsed amid accusations that he had perpetrated a massive fraud to obtain bank loans. Davis now admits that some of the money his company received from the banks went directly to political campaigns.

An investigation by The Sun found that Davis:

Routinely concealed his own donations by giving under the names of family members -- a violation of state election law. Similar donations he made in congressional races violate federal law.

Violated Maryland's $10,000 limit on contributions by an individual or company during a single four-year election cycle -- not only in his own name, but also in the names of his companies, his mother, his brother and his wife.

Signed his mother's name to a $2,000 campaign check to Ruppersberger, a possible felony under the state's forgery law.

Made $16,200 in contributions in the name of a company that falsely purported to sell beef from a family ranch in Montana.

These activities took place during a period when Davis was president of Oceanic Ltd., a modest-sized trucking business that was seized by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court a year ago.

Creditors charged that Davis had siphoned off millions of dollars in an "illegal, improper, fraudulent and malicious" scheme to obtain multiple loans using the same collateral.

Shortly after Oceanic collapsed, Davis was ousted as an officer of McCafferty's, a Mount Washington restaurant. The partners accused Davis of forging documents to drain the restaurant's accounts and take out phony loans in its name.

It is all but impossible to arrive at a complete tally of Davis' contributions in state races because the General Assembly has resisted efforts to computerize Maryland's election records. That battle will be refought this winter as part of a broader effort for campaign finance reform.

This lack of modern enforcement tools has helped Davis and others exceed state spending limits with virtual impunity. Maryland has a $10,000 limit on the total an individual can give to state, county or local candidates combined during an election cycle. But without computers, election officials can't track who is giving how much and to whom.

As a result, no government agency detected Davis' activities, which were buried in the paper jungle of Annapolis. Now he is immune from prosecution for most of his violations of state election law because of Maryland's lenient statute of limitations, which wipes the slate clean after two years.

Davis, 40, has not been charged with any crimes. Federal prosecutors have seized his business records, however, and have sent him a letter warning that he is the target of a criminal investigation in connection with the loans obtained by Oceanic.

It is not clear what Davis expected to gain from his political largess. His company wasn't a state contractor and did not appear to have a strong interest in any particular legislation.

The only plum Davis apparently received in return was a paid part-time position on the board of the state's Injured Workers Insurance Fund -- an appointment arranged by retiring state Sen. John A. Pica, whose campaign received $12,080 from Davis.

Davis spent 15 months on the board, to which he was appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer and reappointed by Glendening, before he was ousted in March for non-attendance.

Today Davis is a shadow of the man who bought tables at Eunice Kennedy Shriver's charity events, visited the White House and attended parties thrown by Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

Davis says he knows he's made some serious mistakes that have landed him in big trouble. With banks moving to foreclose on his Hunt Valley home, he said he was feeling scared and abandoned.

Some former associates describe him as a political "wanna-be" -- a social climber who got a rush from rubbing shoulders with powerful people.

Davis said that description was "totally inaccurate," but declined to give specific reasons for his contributions. He said he would have more to say on that in the future.

He seemed stunned when presented with a list of his contributions. "I'm a very poor record-keeper and I'll be quite honest with you, I'm shocked at the amounts listed for Oceanic," he said. "If I'd known it was that much, it wouldn't have happened."

Between 1991 and 1995, Oceanic alone gave at least $38,480 to candidates in state and county elections and more than $44,000 to national Republican groups.

During that period, Davis also contributed at least $57,619 under his own name in Maryland and federal elections. He also admits to giving in the names of Williams-Nuhn Ranches ($16,200), Winifred Davis ($23,880), Joan Davis ($20,500), Bruce C. Davis ($15,980) and Sharon Davis Gratto ($6,000).

Winifred Davis is Brian Davis' 83-year-old mother, and Joan Davis is his since-estranged wife. Bruce Davis is his brother, and Gratto is his sister.

Williams-Nuhn is a corporate name under which Davis purported to supply beef from a family ranch in Montana to McCafferty's, but it appears to have been a front for Oceanic. When the bankruptcy trustee, Howard Rubinstein, took control of the trucking firm, he found it had been paying Williams-Nuhn's rent and buying its meat on the open market.

The Maryland contributions under each of these names except Gratto's exceeded the state's $10,000 limit for the 1994 election cycle. Davis said he was unaware of that limit, which applies to state, county and local races but not to congressional or presidential elections.

Joan Davis, who has moved from the Baltimore area and is seeking a divorce, could not be reached for comment. But the relatives The Sun was able to contact said Brian Davis used their names without permission.

"I don't appreciate him doing this kind of thing. It's wrong and I'm very distressed by this," said Bruce Davis, a retired elementary school principal who lives in Washington state.

Gratto said she was disturbed to learn that $6,000 had been given in her married and maiden names to Bentley's 1992 congressional campaign and her bid for the GOP nomination for governor in 1994.

"There isn't a Republican that I would give a nickel to," said Gratto, a college music professor who lives out of state.

Winifred Davis, of Lutherville, said she knew her son had made political contributions in her name but had no idea of the amounts. She said the signature on the $2,000 check in her name to Ruppersberger was a forgery, adding that she didn't even vote for the county executive.

Brian Davis admitted making the contributions but claimed to have had blanket consent from his mother and brother to donate in their names -- an assertion they deny. He admitted he did not have his sister's permission.

He also said he signed the check to Ruppersberger in the belief that he had the right to sign her name under a power of attorney from his mother. Winifred Davis denies having given him power of attorney.

Regardless of whether a relative consents to such a gift, contributions under the name of another person are misdemeanors under Maryland election law. However, all but four of the Davis contributions took place in 1994 and the statute of limitations has run out.

The state's statute of limitations would not apply to forgery, which is a felony. Neither would it apply to violations of federal election law, which are generally treated as civil offenses but can be referred to the Justice Department for prosecution.

The Davis contributions also raise questions about how vigilant candidates are about screening out illegal gifts in the heat of a political campaign.

Many of the Davis contributions came in increments of $4,000, the legal limit for one person or company to give to a single candidate in Maryland. None of the campaigns that received multiple gifts appears to have asked questions when Brian Davis brought in a flurry of big-money checks from people with the same surname.

Glendening said he had no idea Davis donated so much to his campaign or that some of the gifts were apparently illegal. "I don't really know him at all. If I saw him in a crowd, I'm not really sure I could pick him out," he said.

Bentley, the political figure who received the most money from Davis, said she never suspected the donations from his relatives were not genuine because she stayed away from fund-raising.

"I know nothing about that end of it and I have made a point not to know anything," Bentley said.

Ruppersberger said his campaign should have been more alert when it received a $4,000 cashier's check under the name Bruce Davis. The fact that it came from the Bank of Glen Burnie but had a California address scrawled on it "should have raised a red flag," he said.

Stephen Montanarelli, the state prosecutor, said campaigns should be wary of taking sweet sums of money from strangers. "The campaign treasurer is supposed to be aware of where the money's coming from," he said.

Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said the Davis case was a stark example of the weaknesses of Maryland's election laws.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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