A General Assembly committee took a quick look yesterday at allegations that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller improperly used his Annapolis office to raise money for a national political committee, and appears ready to drop the matter without a detailed inquiry.
"I wouldn't call it active. It may very well be over," said Del. John S. Arnick, a Dundalk Democrat and co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.
The committee met behind closed doors yesterday, reviewing documents submitted by Miller to refute accusations that he used his office to solicit donations for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which he heads. Using legislative offices for political activities, while not criminal, violates assembly rules.
Previously, Miller told The Washington Post that he "probably" sought a donation during a meeting in his office in January 2001, after the newspaper raised questions about an entry on his calendar concerning national committee business.
A Post investigation examined whether Miller tried to circumvent Maryland campaign finance law by soliciting large donations for the national committee, and steering the money back to candidates he supported in his home state.
Last month, Miller gave the ethics committee a packet of documents that included a signed statement from one of the participants in the 2001 meeting, Pennsylvania state representative and Democratic Party chairman T.J. Rooney, asserting that money was never discussed.
The submission appears to be enough to fend off the legislative committee, which a year ago reprimanded Miller for improperly telephoning judges and berating them while they were reviewing the constitutionality of a legislative redistricting map he helped draw.
While the comparably minor issue of improperly using his office could be resolved soon, Miller is still the subject of a preliminary inquiry by the FBI into fund-raising issues, and a separate probe by the Office of the State Prosecutor.
State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said yesterday he was sorting through a web of campaign donations to and from the national committee, which is charged with helping elect Democrats to state legislatures throughout the country.
"We're still involved in reviewing all of the contributions and transfers of the various committees, and trying to figure out where the money came from and where it went," Montanarelli said. "It's a massive undertaking - more than I expected."
"We're not in any position at this time to say anything," he said. "If we don't charge anyone, then I will say why."
As the inquiries proceed, Miller and racetrack co-owner Joseph A. De Francis have obtained well-regarded criminal defense attorneys to represent them.
Miller has hired Dale B. Kelberman, a former federal prosecutor who became a partner this year in the Baltimore firm of Miles & Stockbridge.
De Francis, who controls a racing group that contributed $275,000 to the national committee, is represented by attorney David B. Irwin of Baltimore.
De Francis' contributions came as the Maryland General Assembly launched a debate on whether to legalize slot machines at Maryland's racetracks. Miller's Senate passed a bill that would have allowed 7,000 slot machines at Pimlico and Laurel tracks partly owned by De Francis. The bill was killed by a House of Delegates committee.
"I'm not doing very much because there's not much to inquire about from his angle," Irwin said yesterday. "[De Francis] complied with all laws. He did nothing improper. I'm on standby."
Irwin would not comment on whether he had been contacted by the FBI.
Arnick has repeatedly said that any investigation by the ethics committee would defer to a federal investigation. He said the committee raised one additional question yesterday that lawyers needed to answer, indicating the probe could be dropped when the answer arrives. He would not disclose details of the final query.
Miller said yesterday that he had not heard from the legislative panel. "No one advised me with regard to any decision," he said. "It would be inappropriate for me to comment."
James Browning, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland, expressed disappointment that the ethics panel appeared to be dropping the complaint, which he filed. Miller's conflicting statements and after-the-fact comments from others are "hardly proof of innocence," Browning said.