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As Cummings rose, financial problems grew; Politician struggled with child support, taxes, mortgage

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Symbols of his rise to power surround Elijah E. Cummings in his office near Druid Hill Park, framed pictures that proclaim him a bright star in Maryland's political constellation:

Cummings with President Clinton. Cummings with Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Cummings addressing the House of Delegates in his days as a leader in Annapolis.

Even as he's attained prominence as a public official over the past decade, however, Cummings has struggled in his private life against profound financial woes.

At one point, while earning $136,700 a year representing Baltimore in Congress, he missed six straight mortgage payments worth about $5,200, triggering foreclosure proceedings against his West Baltimore home. Cummings said he even spent two winters as a congressman without heat, because he could not afford to fix his furnace.

In a recent interview, the 48-year-old representative insisted that his financial crises have never affected his ability to meet his public duties.

"Most of my problems stem from trying to pursue my dream of starting and maintaining my law firm," he said. "When you own a business, when you begin [slipping] financially, it can become like going down a mountain of ice."

A review of state and federal records and interviews with associates provide a picture of a man who has spent years warding off debt collectors, juggling unpaid tax bills and paying to support several children.

Those problems were mounting even as Cummings, a public official for 17 years, was becoming a highly popular and influential figure. In his district, Cummings is regarded by some constituents as a surrogate mayor, and he frequently plays host to Cabinet officials and President Clinton when they visit Baltimore.

Only this year, the Democratic congressman said, has he shaken free of most of his debts. He had previously characterized his difficulties as those born of his decision in late 1995 to run for Congress after Rep. Kweisi Mfume announced that he would resign.

Among his most serious troubles:

In the mid-1990s, the Internal Revenue Service filed court papers declaring that Cummings was legally obliged to pay more than $30,000 in unpaid federal taxes. He finished paying those taxes earlier this year.

Cummings appears to have violated campaign finance law by having a donor co-sign a loan that supplied $15,000 for his first House campaign, attorneys knowledgeable about that law say.

In five instances, creditors went to court to force Cummings to pay a total of $24,000 in overdue debts.

Cummings said he has been short of money, in part, because he helps to support three children: his college-age daughter with his now-estranged wife and two children he fathered by other women out of wedlock -- a 16-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter. Cummings said he paid about $30,000 last year in child support and tuition payments.

The congressman has referred to his younger daughter in many speeches. But until now, he has never publicly acknowledged the existence of his son. The teen-ager lives with his mother in Baltimore.

In 1997, Cummings underwent what he would describe only as "major surgery," which he said drained him of energy and money. "It was a tough year -- unquestionably the toughest of my life," he said.

Driven by 'conscience'

Cummings said he has consistently endeavored to repair his tattered finances without relying on help from anyone with a personal stake in matters that he can affect as a congressman.

"I have a moral conscience that is real central," he said. "I didn't ask the federal government or anyone else to do me any favors."

Cummings has often said that he sacrificed a lucrative legal career to serve in public life. In one typical exchange in 1997, he told a reporter that he had taken a sharp pay cut to go to Congress.

Cummings said recently that in at least one year, his law practice produced hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, far more than he earns as a congressman. And he said he could have made far more working elsewhere.

To understand his situation now, Cummings said, you have to know where he came from: His parents moved to south Baltimore in 1945, leaving behind harsh lives as sharecroppers in South Carolina on land where his ancestors had been slaves. Elijah, one of seven children, was born in 1951. There was little money. His father was a laborer, his mother a housekeeper. Many of his young friends ended up tangling with the law.

"I made a decision that I was going to be a lawyer," Cummings said. "That was my decision, and it became my dream."

As a child, he struggled in elementary school and was assigned to special-education courses. Eventually, though, he improved. After showing promise in high school at City College, he won Phi Beta Kappa honors at Howard University. He graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law and passed the state bar in 1976.

After graduation, he joined the small Baltimore law practice of Michael A. Christianson, now a Cummings aide. He later set up a small practice, pooling expenses with two other lawyers.

From early on, Cummings had a second aspiration: politics. In 1982, with the support of more established city officials, he ran for state delegate and won. While in Annapolis, he became close to Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Yet even as Cummings flourished in the General Assembly, his business began to dry up, he said.

"It just got worse and worse and worse, and we did everything we could to pay our bills," Cummings said. "Being in business for yourself when you're poor and black is extremely difficult. You're not going to get the credit from the banks the others will get."

Accident, tax bills

In October 1990, while driving without auto insurance, Cummings struck another car on a Baltimore street. Though driving without insurance is a misdemeanor under state law, Cummings was not charged, according to traffic court records. Two years later, the other motorist's insurer sued Cummings to recover $11,266 for car repairs and medical treatment. In 1993, Cummings settled the suit and paid the bill.

Cummings said this month that he had not known he was uninsured when the accident occurred. He said he had mailed a check to his insurer for his auto policy, but "they said they didn't get the check," he said.

In 1991, according to tax records, Cummings failed to pay $20,949 in federal taxes, mostly business-related. In 1992, he failed to pay $3,847. In 1993, the figure was $6,054. The total: $30,850. The congressman said he simply did not have enough money to pay all his taxes while balancing other priorities.

"When you have limited resources, what you try to do is stretch those resources," he said. "We always made sure our employees were paid."

On federal disclosure forms, Cummings reported making $67,440 in 1995 -- $38,600 as a lawyer and $28,840 as a state legislator. During his time as a state legislator, from 1983 to 1996, he had not been required to detail his finances.

The IRS filed court documents against Cummings seeking the unpaid taxes -- including an order to pay $9,901 in June 1996, two months after he went to Congress.

Cummings did pay nearly $3,900 of his outstanding taxes, penalties and interest in April 1996, three days after winning election to Congress. He satisfied an additional $17,030 that May. But the congressman did not finish paying the final $9,901 tax bill until January of this year.

In a column in the Baltimore Afro-American in November 1997, published just after the House voted to overhaul the IRS, Cummings wrote that he shared many constituents' distress over the agency.

"All of us pay taxes," he wrote. "Many of us share a paralyzing fear that we have made a mistake when we file our tax return by the April deadline. We have all heard the horror stories of the dreaded audit or the mistake made by the IRS and the years it took to fix it."

In an interview, Cummings said he never asked the IRS to reduce his tax penalties or interest.

"We paid every single dime," Cummings said. A spokesman for the IRS declined to comment, saying it is the agency's policy to protect taxpayers' privacy.

Other debts were also mounting. In April 1995, Free State Reporting Inc. sued to recover $312.50 from Cummings for overdue transcribing and postage fees. He paid the bill a month later.

Debbie Serio, a Free State bookkeeper, said her company waited more than six months before suing.

"I never was able to get in touch with him," Serio said. "When I heard on the news who he was, I thought, 'Ooof, what did I do?' But if he's not even going to bother calling me, we're going to try to get our money back." Eventually, she added, "he did pay us." Cummings said he had no recollection of the debt or the lawsuit.

In June 1995, a 38-year-old Baltimore lawyer named DeBora M. Ricks sued Cummings, seeking a blood test to prove that her daughter, born in October 1994, was his. After the test, a consent decree required Cummings to pay $6,720 a year for child support.

Loan used for campaign

As the March 1996 primary approached, Cummings asked William K. Blanchet, an early campaign donor, to help him secure a $25,000 loan. According to both men, Blanchet arranged the loan and co-signed it March 1.

Cummings said he needed that money to pay debts, primarily overdue taxes. When pressed, Cummings acknowledged what his own campaign reports disclose: He immediately used $15,000 of the money to lend to his campaign for the last days of the pivotal Democratic primary.

Several attorneys who deal with campaign finance law said his use of $15,000 from the co-signed loan for the campaign appears to violate the law, because it technically constitutes a $7,500 contribution by Blanchet -- above the $2,000 legal limit for any donor.

"That person would have been deemed to have made a contribution that exceeds the limit," said Stanley M. Brand, a longtime Democratic lawyer. "I don't know how they get around that."

Brand characterized the use of Cummings' loan as a relatively modest infraction but one that could lead to a fine by the Federal Election Commission.

After the spring special election, the FEC requested more information about the loan. Cummings said the transaction was proper. "We disclosed it, keep that in mind," Cummings said. "To my knowledge, the matter is closed."

Blanchet, who co-signed Cummings' loan, was the founder of an Anne Arundel County company called Bio-Gro. While a state delegate, Cummings represented the company before the Baltimore City Board of Estimates, which awarded Bio-Gro a 20-year, $160 million sewage treatment contract in 1991. Cummings' congressional campaigns have received at least $15,860 from contributors -- executives, lobbyists and political action committees -- directly linked to Bio-Gro and its parent companies, Wheelabrator Technologies and Waste Management Inc.

Blanchet said Friday that he did not know that Cummings had used money from the loan for his campaign. "I certainly never had any discussion with Elijah about the use of those funds for his campaign," Blanchet said. "My understanding was that it was for some kind of debt consolidation."

In a 27-person Democratic primary in March 1996, Cummings won with 37 percent of the vote and received 81 percent in the general election a month later. The loan was repaid on time.

In Congress, more expenses

During his time in Congress, Cummings said, his expenses have continued to rise. He has lived apart from his wife, Joyce M. Cummings, since 1982, though the couple has not divorced. He said he paid his older daughter's tuition at Roland Park Country School, which was $10,600 in the 1995-1996 school year and rose to $12,875 by last year, which was her senior year. Cummings said he also pays $500 a month to the mother of his 16-year-old son.

After the April 16, 1996, election, he said, Ricks, the mother of his younger daughter, asked for more money; Cummings said he voluntarily doubled his annual payments, to $13,440.

On June 6, 1996, Ricks went to work as a $37,210-a-year staff attorney at the Injured Workers Insurance Fund, a quasi-state agency. Ricks declined to comment for this article.

On April 25, Cummings was sworn into Congress, but his debt problems persisted. In November 1997, the company holding his mortgage initiated foreclosure proceedings after he failed to make payments for six months. Cummings paid off the $5,196 owed, plus several hundred dollars in fines and interest, by June of last year.

In February last year, Cummings was also taken to court by his accountants, who said he owed $6,079 related to the preparation of earlier taxes. He paid that debt in January this year. And in April, a judge ruled in favor of Washington Hospital Center, ordering Cummings to pay $418.78 for medical care given in 1997. The congressman paid the debt in June.

Though Cummings said his debts were caused mainly by lack of income, he also tried to explain in interviews how each one had arisen.

The medical bill, he said, was overlooked in a crush of mail. The accountant's suit, he said, stemmed from a minor dispute about the size of fees.

"I don't like lawsuits," Cummings said. "But I tell you, one of the complaints of my friends is that I spend so much time helping other people that I don't spend the time I ought to on my own life."

By the end of this year, Cummings said, he intends to be "totally debt-free," once he pays an additional $7,000 that is charged to his credit cards.

"I've told people many times that it's not whether you will have difficulties," he said. "The question is how you deal with them."

Sun research librarian Robert Schrott contributed to this article.

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