In the closing weeks of this year's race for governor, supporters of Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey found an unlikely way to give her financial assistance: They sent $1,000 checks to Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, a New York Republican.
At the same time, dozens of D'Amato's backers from New York and elsewhere returned the favor by making contributions of up to $8,000 apiece to Sauerbrey.
The Maryland-New York connection was a behind-the-scenes agreement between the two campaigns to tap into each other's financial bases. D'Amato's camp urged some of the senator's backers to write checks to Sauerbrey; in exchange, Sauerbrey supporters aggressively solicited contributions for D'Amato from Marylanders.
Known as "check swapping" in political circles, the arrangement netted Sauerbrey at least $118,000 from New York givers and D'Amato at least $50,000 from Maryland.
The effort to help Sauerbrey was led by Joseph A. De Francis, the principal owner of Laurel and Pimlico race courses, who helped generate thousands of dollars in contributions for D'Amato from Marylanders affiliated with horse racing.
For some of those involved, sending checks to the D'Amato re-election effort was an effective way to generate campaign cash for Sauerbrey from New York with little public notice.
And some supporters who had given Sauerbrey the maximum amount allowed under state law were able to continue to help her indirectly by giving to D'Amato, and vice versa, according to an analysis of campaign finance reports.
"The intention was to achieve synergy from the two fund-raising bases," De Francis said.
In all, Sauerbrey supporters raised at least $50,000 for D'Amato in mid-October, with most of it coming from the racing industry, according to the reports.
In return, the D'Amato financial machine generated at least $118,000 for Sauerbrey, with New York City developers, Chicago bankers and Long Island construction companies sending checks.
The contributions to Sauerbrey and D'Amato -- who both lost in the November elections -- were recorded on their respective financial statements within the same two-day period.
There is no indication that the joint fund raising -- detailed in finance reports filed in Annapolis, Washington and Albany, N.Y. -- violated state or federal election laws.
But advocates of campaign-finance reform said the practice serves to circumvent limits on campaign contributions and weakens the law that requires all contributions be made public.
"The whole foundation of our campaign finance system is that everything is supposed to be disclosed and the public can see where the money is coming from," said Paul Hendrie, communications director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, Washington advocacy group.
"When you're using state and federal campaign committees and swapping money between the candidates, it makes it that much harder to track the money, and it's certainly impossible for the average citizen to track it," Hendrie said.
Hendrie and others involved in campaign finance issues said check swapping and similar techniques are becoming more common as candidates, hamstrung by campaign spending limits, look for new ways to raise money to pay for increasingly expensive races.
Sauerbrey did not respond to phone messages. Her campaign spokeswoman, Carol L. Hirschburg, said she did not know the details of D'Amato's fund-raising assistance. But, she said: "All contributions seem to have been reported in accordance with the law."
A D'Amato campaign spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. D'Amato's offices in Washington and New York were closed in recent days.
D'Amato, who raised more than $17 million for this year's election, has been regarded as among the most aggressive and creative fund-raisers in the country.
He and New York Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, also raised money together by tapping into each other's base of supporters. Such a strategy "saves time and coordinates efforts," D'Amato said in a recent newspaper interview.
Details of the joint fund raising were gleaned from campaign finance reports filed after Sauerbrey lost to Gov. Parris N. Glendening despite raising more than $6.4 million, a Maryland record.
After 18 years in the Senate, D'Amato was defeated by U.S. Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat. The D'Amato fund-raising summaries covering the last weeks of the campaign were not made public until Dec. 8.
The D'Amato and Sauerbrey camps joined forces Oct. 21 at a New York City fund-raiser.
Wayne L. Berman, finance chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said he played matchmaker. He said Sauerbrey advisers asked him to arrange an event for Sauerbrey with D'Amato in New York. In exchange, the Sauerbrey camp would raise money for D'Amato.
"She had a need to raise additional funds, and I thought so did he," Berman said of the two candidates. "I thought, 'Hey, let's do what we do.' "
Sauerbrey enjoyed the benefits of D'Amato's vaunted money machine as checks poured in from dozens of the senator's supporters.
Among them were Peter Kalikow, the former owner of the New York Post; investment adviser John A. Levin; and Thomas B. Poole, a Long Island construction company owner, all of whom gave at least $8,000 personally or through their companies.
Three small Chicago banks -- whose executives have supported D'Amato -- sent $24,000 to Sauerbrey. And the Renew New York Political Action Committee, one of several PACs controlled by D'Amato, sent $8,000 to Sauerbrey.
For their part, De Francis and other Sauerbrey supporters mustered at least $50,000 in checks from Maryland for D'Amato, with the majority of it coming from racing interests.
De Francis gave $1,000 to D'Amato, as did his partners -- the maximum amount for federal races.
Some seemingly unlikely people also sent checks to the conservative Republican senator from New York.
Among them were the wife of the tracks' main lobbyist, Alan M. Rifkin, who worked for several years in Annapolis for prominent Democratic officeholders, including former Gov. William Donald Schaefer; and Robert J. DiPietro, the former Democratic mayor of Laurel who is now an official at Laurel and Pimlico, and who with his wife contributed $2,000.
Also sending $1,000 checks were the tracks' public relations chief, Robert V. Leffler, and his wife, as well as officials from the companies that provide accounting, insurance, legal, sound and catering services to the tracks.
"We did it in conjunction with the racetrack," said Harold Snyder, president of International Sound, a Baltimore County company that provides sound services to the tracks. "[D'Amato] was helping Sauerbrey, so I presume it was connected."
Along with the racing community, Sauerbrey fund-raisers Richard E. Hug and B. Larry Jenkins also gave $1,000 to D'Amato.
Timonium financial planner Lee W. Warner, who had given Sauerbrey $4,000, also gave the maximum $1,000 to D'Amato, as did Richard P. Taylor, a Republican national committeeman from Montgomery County.
Hug, who was a top adviser to Sauerbrey during the campaign, said she had done small-scale joint fund raising with at least two other out-of-state candidates. "This was not particularly unusual," Hug said.
At least two of the people who gave to D'Amato also gave the maximum allowed under state law to Maryland candidates, $8,000 to a gubernatorial candidate and a total of $10,000 to all candidates in a four-year election cycle.
De Francis said he had already given the maximum $10,000 to state candidates in Maryland, although none to Sauerbrey.
And Jenkins, a Baltimore insurance executive, gave the maximum $8,000 to Sauerbrey.
Kenneth C. Nohe, who had been an economic development official for former Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden, a Republican, gave D'Amato $1,000 after contributing $7,925 to Sauerbrey, according to Sauerbrey's campaign finance reports.
Berman, the Republican national fund-raiser who helped bring the two camps together, acknowledged that the New York event and others like it are prompted by campaign spending limits in state and federal law.
"You find [a candidate] with a lot of donors who have hit the maximum contribution level allowed," Berman said. "You have someone else in a similar situation, and you have a joint fund-raiser and both people benefit."
Hendrie, of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the contributions between Maryland and New York suggest that some of the donors had hidden motives.
"The people in New York are giving to Sauerbrey to curry favor with D'Amato, not with Sauerbrey, and the people in Maryland are doing the same for Sauerbrey," Hendrie said.
But some of the contributors to D'Amato rejected the suggestion that they intended to indirectly help Sauerbrey.
James A. D'Orta, a Washington physician and friend of De
Francis, called himself "an absolute card-carrying Democrat" who raised money for Glendening but nonetheless gave $1,000 to D'Amato.
"I knew some of my friends were supporting him," D'Orta said. He made the contribution, he said, because he and D'Amato are both from Long Island.
Victoria M. Rosellini, an ambulance company executive and racehorse owner, said she sent a check to the New York senator at the urging of other horse owners, not to help Sauerbrey. "I was for Glendening," she said.
But De Francis and many others affiliated with Maryland's racing industry supported Sauerbrey, largely over the issue of slot machines.
Glendening has ruled out the legalization of slots in Maryland, while Sauerbrey left the door open for such a move to benefit the horse racing industry. Any move to bring slots to Maryland would likely generate vast amounts of revenue for state racetracks and the industry at large.
De Francis, who had raised money for Glendening during his first run for governor in 1994, aggressively helped Sauerbrey behind the scenes in 1998. His biggest contribution was a gift of $250,000 to the national Republican Party in October. That contribution was made at about the time that the Republican Governors Association launched ads attacking Glendening.
The racetracks also paid for an expensive television ad blitz and mailings touting the need to legalize slots in Maryland, a campaign that was widely seen as a pro-Sauerbrey effort.
And several top officials and subsidiaries of Leucadia National Corp., the New York investment firm that this year purchased nearly a half interest in Laurel and Pimlico, gave Sauerbrey at least $38,500 in the final weeks of the campaign.
De Francis was found guilty in 1996 of violating state campaign laws by sending $12,000 to three relatives in upstate New York, who in turn sent checks to the Glendening campaign, a move that allowed him to circumvent state-imposed limits on campaign contributions. De Francis was given probation before judgment and fined $1,000.
The racetrack owner said that the D'Amato fund-raising effort here was not intended to disguise or hide support for Sauerbrey.
"I made no bones about it," De Francis said. "I don't think it was any secret I was supporting her very strongly."
Pub Date: 12/22/98