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Officials received funds in session

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland lawmakers logged more than a half-million dollars in political contributions during November's three-week special session, a time when debate over budget and tax issues roused intense lobbying campaigns by special-interest groups, according to an analysis by The Sun.

The list of politicians who recorded donations during the session includes some of the most influential figures in Annapolis, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose finance report shows him collecting $78,000 during that period, and Sen. Ulysses Currie, the chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, who posted nearly $47,000 in contributions in that time.

Currie and an O'Malley spokesman said that the contributions were related to fundraisers held before the special session but not recorded until weeks later.

Fundraising is illegal during the General Assembly's annual 90-day session but not during special sessions. Before this one began, the legislature's ethics counsel advised against raising money during the session from special interests that might be affected by the bills under consideration.

The data do not allow for a comprehensive calculation of how much various industries contributed, but the finance reports show donations from businesses that were at one time the subject of proposed new taxes, such as landscaping firms and health clubs.

In a memo sent to lawmakers several weeks before the special session began in late October, William G. Somerville, the General Assembly's ethics counsel, cautioned lawmakers against intentionally scheduling fundraisers to coincide with the special session or accepting donations from narrowly defined groups of individuals or entities affected by the legislation being considered.

In an interview, he said he was referring to legislation affecting only gambling interests or specific businesses, for instance, and not broad-based measures such as an income tax increase.

"Legislators are expected to avoid even the appearance of impropriety," Somerville wrote in the memo.

Legislators approved a package of bills to close a projected $1.7 billion budget gap, including an extension of the sales tax to services not previously covered and a measure that put the question of whether to legalize slot machines to a November referendum.

Several lawmakers said their contributions came from fundraisers that had been scheduled months before O'Malley set the starting date for the special session, Oct. 15. Others said some checks were written at events held before the special session but were not recorded until the session was under way.

A database of campaign finance records with the state Board of Elections requires that candidates enter the date a donation was received. There is no standard practice, and that date could represent when a check was written, received or deposited, Deputy Elections Administrator Ross K. Goldstein said.

O'Malley, for instance, logged $78,400 in donations during the special session. Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the Democratic governor, said the "vast majority" of the contributions were related to one fundraiser held before the session.

"The campaign processed those checks over the course of the next few weeks as they came in," Abbruzzese said, referring to donations recorded in November.

O'Malley announced he would hold a special session and outlined his plans for tax increases - including a proposal to extend the sales tax to several services - in September.

Currie, whose committee helped to craft much of the legislation during the session, reported two donations totaling $1,500 from video game vendors and $500 from a landscaping company, two businesses that legislators considered including in the sales-tax regime. In the end, those ideas were dropped.

Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, and the treasurer for his campaign committee, Olivia Harris, said the donations were related to a fundraiser in early October and were not processed until afterward.

"There was nothing untoward about this," Currie said. He also noted that his committee had voted to tax landscaping and arcade services.

Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause Maryland, a watchdog group, said that during the special session legislators should have abided by the spirit of the fundraising prohibition that applies during the regular session.

"It looks bad when legislators are taking money from special interests when they are also making decisions that impact those special interests," Boyle said. "Is their vote being swayed? I don't know, but it doesn't look good."

During the regular session, neither legislators nor anyone acting on their behalf can receive a contribution, hold a fundraising event, solicit or sell a ticket to such an event, or deposit a contribution regardless of when it was received.

One of the biggest uncertainties during the special session was what services would be subject to the sales tax. O'Malley, who said the tax code was outdated, proposed taxing property management services, health clubs and massage parlors. Legislators rejected those ideas and fought for days over what services to include, finally settling on computer services.

Sen. John C. Astle, vice chairman of the Finance Committee and an Anne Arundel County Democrat, held a long-planned fundraiser during the special session, and he recorded $17,300 over those three weeks. Two donations totaling $750 came from a computer company and a political action committee representing Realtors, who opposed the property management tax.

Astle said he voted against the tax bills and was not aware of who gave him money. He said that he often does not see donor checks, which go directly to his treasurer.

"There are some people who can tell you exactly who gave them what, and I've heard stories that sometimes impacts actions taken here, but I've never felt that way," Astle said. "You have an obligation to be open to everybody and to make decisions that are in the best interest of the people."

"I don't go to lobbying firms when I'm looking for votes," he said.

Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican, also said a fundraiser he had planned for months happened to be scheduled during the special session. He raised $14,000, including $250 from an apartment owner. He said the donor is a friend and that he made his anti-tax stance clear before the special session began.

"It didn't affect the outcome at all," Simonaire said.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he sent invitations to his December fundraiser in August. He said that he would have canceled it if the special session had lasted through the day of his event.

He collected $5,000, including $125 from a health club, during the session. Zirkin said the donations were ticket sales, though he also said he does not know who gives him money because the checks are routed through his treasurer.

"I don't have the faintest idea," he said.

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