Rep. Anthony G. Brown is slowly making progress paying back the $500,000 he borrowed from a union in the waning weeks of his unsuccessful 2014 run for governor — but he is doing so in an unexpected way.
Brown, who sailed to victory in the heavily Democratic 4th Congressional District last fall, returned $160,000 of the loan from the Laborers Political Education Fund in 2016, state campaign finance reports filed last week show.
At the same time, Brown was being repaid money he had lent his campaign for Congress.
A review of state and federal campaign finance reports by The Baltimore Sun indicates that Brown is paying off the state debt to the union at the same time he is being paid back by his federal congressional account — often in identical sums of money.
Brown lent his congressional campaign $408,850, reports show.
On June 13, 2016 — after he had won the Democratic primary in the 4th District — the campaign repaid him $73,000. On the same day, Brown paid his state account $73,000.
On Sept. 30, 2016, his federal account repaid him $86,000. On the same day, Brown gave $86,000 to his state account.
The money Brown is sending to his state campaign is being used, in part, to pay off the Laborers.
Legally, federal money can't be used for state campaign expenses. But in this case, federal donors are giving to a federal account that is paying back the money it owes to Brown.
Once Brown has that cash in hand, there is nothing prohibiting him from giving it to his state account, experts said.
"These loans and repayments do seem to be within the law, but they certainly raise questions," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel with Common Cause Maryland. "It is clearly illegal to directly transfer funds from a federal campaign to a state campaign, and while technically that is not occurring here, the sequence of these transactions is too coincidental to be coincidence.
"Ultimately," she said, "this scenario shows the weakness of Maryland's campaign finance laws related to loans."
Brown is technically lending his state campaign the money. There are important distinctions between a state campaign owing money to an outside group and owing money to the candidate. Brown can loan his campaign money at zero interest, and he doesn't ever have to pay himself back.
The union loan, by contrast, is more onerous. If Brown doesn't pay that money back by the end of 2018, the Maryland State Board of Elections could find that it was an illegal gift in excess of the state's contribution limits.
Brown declined to discuss the concerns raised by Common Cause. He stuck to the refrain he has used for years on the issue.
"I will satisfy the obligations as required by the state campaign finance laws," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.