Many of the guests were developers with multimillion-dollar projects planned in Anne Arundel County. The price of admission was the state maximum for a campaign contribution: $4,000.
And the host at Monday night's exclusive dinner at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront was County Executive John R. Leopold, who was swept into office pledging that developers would no longer be allowed "to drive public policy in the county."
The event raised at least $100,000 for Leopold, who doesn't stand for re-election until 2010. But he will oversee the once-a-decade review of the county's development plan, which could particularly benefit developers around expanding Fort Meade and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
"It sounded like an excellent opportunity to buy some access and influence," said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group.
Leopold, however, said there was nothing untoward about the event.
"They wanted to get to know me better, to get acquainted with me, to have an opportunity to have a frank exchange of views," he said. "Whether a donor gives me $4,000, $1,000 or zero dollars, it won't change the direction I will pursue in the county."
"Clearly, my policy initiatives in my nine months in office clearly indicate that there are new directives and new priorities and new ways of working with the development community."
The 25 to 30 paid guests included Gary Koch, perhaps the biggest homebuilder in the county; Richard Alter, president and CEO of Manekin LLC, the commercial real estate conglomerate; Joseph A. De Francis, chief executive of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course; and John Paterakis Sr., the bakery mogul and hotel developer.
Calls left for those contributors and several others were not returned yesterday.
Based on his expected haul Monday night, Leopold said he has raised more than $200,000 since taking office in December. One of the few Republicans to win prominent office in Maryland last year, Leopold said he's raising the money with a focus on retaining his seat for a second term.
He will hold a $1,000-a-head fundraiser organized by Suburban Airport owner Rick Polm in the next few weeks. In 2004, the Polm Cos. failed to get county support to build 641 townhouses and condominiums on the airport property in Laurel.
Leopold said his record indicates that he's taking a principled stance on protecting the environment and promoting responsible building.
After accepting a $2,000 contribution on the eve of the election from one of the county's most prominent businessmen, Leopold signed off on a county lawsuit against E. Steuart Chaney, alleging illegal building at his marina at the county's southeastern tip. Leopold recently endorsed county legislation to ban the disposal of coal ash in the county after developers who supported his campaign were ordered to clean up contaminated water that regulators say was tainted by the ash.
The executive aggressively backed county and state legislation to crack down on illegal waterfront building, persuaded Wal-Mart to scrap plans to build near wetlands in Crofton, devoted $6.1 million to buy a 30-acre parcel across the street from the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary to stop the building of a shopping center and persuaded the Navy to allow the county to convert an 857-acre farm in Gambrills to a botanical garden.
"Business as usual means behavior in office," Leopold said.
Critics expressed uneasiness about the timing of the fundraiser, as the Leopold administration undertakes a review of the county's growth blueprint.
Billions of dollars in projects are riding on the plan in the form of rezoning. Leopold has pushed back most zoning decisions so they will be reviewed as part of the larger development plan. County officials hope to complete the task by December 2008.
Anne Arundel County is facing an explosion of high-tech jobs, partially fed by a defense expansion at Fort Meade that is expected to bring 22,000 jobs to the Army post over the next five years. For the period from 2006 through 2008, at least 30 major developments with a combined price tag of at least $6 billion are completed, being built, under county review or in conceptual planning, according to the county's economic development agency.
Democrats and other critics accused Leopold of hypocrisy, noting that the Republican said Johnson was "far too cozy with the big-money bosses and the development industry" after Johnson won the endorsement of five former county executives. Leopold said at the time that the former executives represented business as usual and he pledged to "not be beholden to" developers.
"Where is the statement: I will drive a stake through the heart of the development community? The steak was the one he had over dinner with them," Johnson, a former three-term county sheriff, said in a phone interview yesterday. "That's the most hypocritical thing that I see."
John G. Gary, a Republican who served as county executive from 1994 to 1998, said he doesn't "see anything wrong" with Leopold's fundraising because it's a fact of life in politics.
"But John campaigned on the message of not doing business as usual, and here he is doing the same thing that all of us did."