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Developer's influence questioned

High above the $220 million town center project in Owings Mills and within view of the motorists zooming by on Interstate 795, a banner hanging from a construction crane displays the name "Brown."

The work of developer Howard S. Brown, who is chairman of David S. Brown Enterprises, is reflected in signs throughout Baltimore County. At a business park down the road from the town center project is a sign identifying it as a Brown property. Another sign there reads: "Elect Bobby Zirkin."

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With the primary election less than two weeks away, the developer and the candidate are facing questions involving campaign dollars and political influence. And though both deny any wrongdoing, what seems clear is that a hard-charging developer who has won both praise and scorn for his work now finds his dealings with politicians being questioned.

Zirkin, a Democratic state delegate seeking a state Senate seat, has been accused of failing to properly account for office space rented by his campaign from a partnership that includes Brown. Meanwhile, a government watchdog group has sent the state prosecutor a spreadsheet that it says suggests that Brown's company might have exceeded limits on political campaign contributions.

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"If people can exceed campaign contribution limits, what's the sense in having them?" said Bobbie Walton, executive director of the watchdog group, Common Cause Maryland.

Brown is the developer who a decade ago angered preservationists by demolishing the 18th-century Samuel Owings House. When Baltimore County Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz rejected a zoning request from Brown's company several years ago, Kamenetz said he had been threatened politically by the project's developers.

"He symbolizes the reputation of developers in my district -- the good and the bad," said Kamenetz, a Democrat who represents the Pikesville and Ruxton areas. "He's very generous to the community charitably; he's active in his synagogue. But he has a bull-in-the-china-shop mentality. He wants to achieve things right away, and he takes no prisoners along the way."

Brown's firm and political action committee have contributed more than $31,800 to political candidates since 2003, according to campaign finance records filed with the state elections board. Individuals and companies are limited to $10,000 in contributions over a four-year period, while political action committees can contribute up to $6,000 to any number of campaigns.

The contributions went to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., members of the Baltimore County Council and others. Brown has also held a private fundraiser at his Owings Mills home for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Brown declined to be interviewed for this article, but Lee N. Sachs, his firm's attorney, said Brown follows campaign finance laws meticulously. He said checks written by partnerships that include Brown generally come from the same disbursement account and candidates may have incorrectly attributed the source of the money to Brown's company.

"We know the laws well," Sachs said. "We've never been over the limit -- never."

Brown's firm has also contributed $1,800 in campaign money since 2003 to Zirkin, who is running for the state Senate seat representing northwest Baltimore County.

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J. Michael Collins, a Republican running for county Circuit Court clerk, wrote to state elections officials and the state prosecutor earlier this year, saying that Zirkin's campaign had not accounted for the full value of one of the office spaces it had rented from one of Brown's partnerships.

Zirkin said his campaign used the Pikesville office for 10 months last year mostly as a storage space, but also occasionally for meetings. His campaign reported that it paid $5,000 for the space.

Zirkin and Sachs attributed what might seem to be relatively low rent for office space to its unfinished condition, with wiring hanging out of the ceiling, unfinished walls and no heating and air conditioning.

State law requires that campaigns report their expenditures and receipts, but it does not spell out provisions for rent payments, said Jared DeMarinis, director of the State Board of Elections' Candidacy and Campaign Finance Division. He said it is understood that candidates should pay market-value rent or account for discounts through "in-kind" contributions, but that the exact market value of a property can be hard to determine.

"At best, it appears [Zirkin] overlooked something, at worst, questionable behavior by the campaign," said Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party. "Clearly it requires investigation."

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh declined yesterday to confirm whether his office was investigating the accusations involving Brown and Zirkin, pointing to a policy to not comment on such matters.

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Zirkin's campaign now works out of a Brown property in Owings Mills that he says is smaller but is more of a finished, working office. He said three months' rent is accounted for in the $1,500 in-kind contribution from a Brown partnership that he reported earlier this month.

"They set the price for it," Zirkin said of executives at Brown Enterprises. He said if an official questions the value of the contribution, he would be open to adjusting his accounting.

Zirkin is opposed in the Democratic primary by Owings Mills physician Scott Rifkin.

"I certainly hope that Mr. Zirkin hasn't violated the trust of the community," Rifkin said. "And I certainly hope that there is not this unholy alliance between Mr. Zirkin and the Brown organization to affect elections."

Zirkin said he has been close friends for a decade with Arthur H. Adler, vice president of Brown Enterprises and Howard Brown's son-in-law. He said Adler now works on his campaign.

Through Sachs, Adler declined to be interviewed for this article. Zirkin said he is not close with Howard Brown.

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Brown is described as a philanthropist. Sachs said he has given millions to Jewish charities and other causes. He is also an enthusiastic art collector, placing metal sculptures in his office buildings.

Brown is also known as a hard-nosed developer. His proposal to build a high-rise for the elderly on land owned by the Beth Tfiloh synagogue in the 1990s divided the Jewish community there. Several years ago, when Kamenetz denied a zoning request from Brown's company that would have allowed a high-rise condominium to be built at Druid Ridge Cemetery, the councilman said project developers had threatened to recruit someone to run against him.

Brown and Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. executive Willard Hackerman are developing the Owings Mills town center project at the Metro station.

Sachs estimated that Brown is affiliated with at least 40 business entities, and that up to half have given money to campaigns.

"By no means do we max out our gift giving," he said. "We could do far more than we do."

Alan Zukerberg, a community activist in Pikesville who has fought Brown's plans to develop land at Druid Ridge Cemetery, said developers give money to candidates for a reason.

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"Politicians will often say, 'It doesn't buy any influence, it buys an entr?e into the door to speak to me.' I don't buy that," he said. "The public doesn't really know the intricacies of what's going on and why these politicians do so much for these developers. The developers exert a lot influence."

U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a former Baltimore County executive, said Brown maintains the highest standards for his projects, and would personally advocate for them.

Kamenetz said that in arguing for one development, Brown drew a diagram on a napkin showing how to reduce traffic by constructing a bypass near the Beltway -- a plan that Kamenetz said was later carried out.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com


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