O'Malley returns donor's money

The Baltimore Sun

James G. Robinson, a Baltimore importer turned Hollywood movie mogul with a continuing dispute over his lease at the port of Baltimore, gave at least $125,000 to Gov. Martin O'Malley and his running mate, Anthony G. Brown, on the eve of last year's election.

With tens of thousands more donated to O'Malley and Brown in the months after the election - as well as $70,000 given to Comptroller Peter Franchot on the eve of his general election victory - Robinson quietly and quickly established himself as one of the single largest donors to Maryland's top three Democrats, according to a review of campaign finance records by The Sun.

At least some of the contributions appear to violate Maryland campaign finance law, which says an individual or business may give no more than $4,000 to a candidate during a four-year election cycle and no more than $10,000 total during that time.

O'Malley and Brown have given back $96,000. Franchot campaign officials said they are examining their records and might also return some of the donations.

"I feel very bad that these checks did not trip our vetting process," O'Malley said in an interview. "We were deluged with an incredible volume of activity in the last days of the campaign. I'm very sorry we did not catch that."

In addition to giving directly to those three politicians, the man behind Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective wrote a couple of checks to the state Democratic Party, swelling its accounts by $50,000. His giving totaled $300,000.

When he began making the donations, Robinson, who has little previous record of political activity in Maryland, was pursuing a federal lawsuit and Federal Maritime Commission complaint against Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration.

He claimed that leaders at the port refused to negotiate reasonable terms for the renewal of his lease on 6.4 acres at the Dundalk Marine Terminal, to the advantage of one of his competitors.

Despite the contributions, he isn't getting his way at the port. The state won his federal lawsuit appeal this summer, and it continues to contest the Maritime Commission complaint.

Robinson did not respond to requests for comment made to his office in California or through one of his attorneys in Maryland.

It's not unusual for a big-money donor to funnel donations through a variety of limited liability companies to get around the limits. Because the companies Robinson used were structured differently, many of the donations did not qualify for that exemption from the law. In other cases, about $60,000 worth, either he or a company he owned broke the $10,000 limit.

What is unusual - besides the sheer amount of Robinson's donations - is the intensity and concentration of his largesse.

Before last year, he had made just a handful of campaign contributions in Maryland, most of them to federal candidates. He also gave two $1,000 checks to O'Malley during his first run for Baltimore mayor. The governor said he has known Robinson for years.

"He's someone who has been kind to me in other races," O'Malley said.

But unlike many big-money givers who like to hedge their bets, Robinson focused his giving on three politicians. There is no record that he has donated a penny to a member of the General Assembly, according to finance records that cover the period until the start of last January's legislative session.

Robinson's briefly became a well-known name this summer when he wrote a letter to actress Lindsay Lohan accusing her of acting "like a spoiled child" on the set of a movie he was producing and saying her failure to arrive on the set on time was the result of all-night partying.

But his endeavors in Hollywood are a second career for Robinson. He got his start importing cars at the port of Baltimore more than 40 years ago and later developed real estate and owned a car dealership.

It was the importing business - Premier Automotive Services Inc., which now focuses on farm equipment - that appears to have set him against the Ehrlich administration, though the dispute began before the Republican governor was sworn into office. In 2002, the lease on Robinson's lot at the port expired, and officials there sought to insert several clauses he objected to in the new lease.

Port spokesman Richard Scher said the new terms, which include a requirement for the rapidity with which cargo enters and leaves the facility, are standard and have been in place for other tenants since the late 1980s.

Since then, Robinson's company has been operating on a month-to-month lease - paying $506.08 per day - while he battles with the port in federal court and the Maritime Commission.

In June 2006, the state won the right to evict Robinson in federal bankruptcy court, and things started to get ugly.

Eight days after the court ruling, nine armed Maryland Transportation Authority police officers and port officials stormed Robinson's warehouse, cutting locks and climbing through a window to get in. They arrested a worker who refused to leave and seized control of 170 tractors that were being repaired on the lot.

But the state's raid violated a court ruling requiring it to wait 10 days before evicting Robinson. The judge, who had not previously been on his side, expressed annoyance with the state and prohibited it from acting until a decision was issued in Robinson's appeal.

The incident didn't sit well with Robinson, either. He said the raid was "out of a B-movie" and pulled plans to shoot scenes of the movie The Good Shepherd in Baltimore, opting for New York instead.

"I started with nothing, fresh out of the Army," he told The Sun at the time. "The state's been good to me. But now, I'm supposed to be enthusiastic about doing business here?"

O'Malley said he was somewhat aware of the situation.

"I know he felt he had been treated poorly by the previous administration," O'Malley said. "I do remember that, and I'm not sure we were able to be of any more help to him than the previous administration."

Indeed, Scher said the port continued its legal fight against Robinson after O'Malley was inaugurated, and won in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals this summer.

Scher said Premier has removed all its cargo and equipment from its lot at the port, though a building it constructed there is still standing. Scher said the port has asked for demolition plans for the structure but hasn't heard back from Premier.

A decision from the Maritime Commission is expected soon.

"The goal for us is to certainly maximize the productivity of the land, and Premier is being treated like any other tenant would be," Scher said. "We're exercising our right as the landlord to move forward on this, and we're pursuing it the same way we have been."


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