Last week, I filed a request with the Campaign Finance Division of the State Board of Elections to prevent Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. from participating in the current election as a member of a campaign "slate." Members of a slate are allowed to transfer an unlimited amount of money from one campaign to another if both campaigns are members of the same slate.
Friends of Jim Smith, the outgoing county executive's campaign finance account, last reported nearly $1 million in cash on hand. Mr. Smith is widely expected to transfer money, through the use of the Baltimore County Victory slate, to his handpicked candidates. Kathy Bevins and Gordon Hardin were recently added to the Baltimore County Victory slate, and it is anticipated that Tom Quirk will also join. All three of these council candidates have also received significant financial backing from a pair of development attorneys: Michael Paul Smith, who is Jim Smith's son, and David Gildea, a former law clerk to then-Judge Smith.
State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger and Gov. Martin O'Malley are also members of this slate. In the 2006, County Executive Smith used the Baltimore County Victory slate to transfer $435,000 to Mr. Shellenberger's campaign account. (I ran against Mr. Shellenberger in that election and am doing so again now.) This transfer, however unusual it may have seemed at the time, was completely legal because Mr. Smith was running for reelection and met the definition of a candidate.
Under state law, a "slate" is defined as a political committee of two or more candidates who join together to conduct and pay for joint campaign activities. A candidate is defined as an individual who files a certificate of candidacy for a public or party office. Jim Smith has not filed a certificate of candidacy for any office, and he is not conducting joint campaign activities.
The case appears open and shut, right? Not so fast, says the State Board of Elections.
The board points out that the term candidate also includes an individual for whom a campaign finance entity (campaign account) has been established, even if that individual has not yet filed a certificate of candidacy. Jim Smith does have a valid campaign finance entity; therefore, the board has decided that he must be treated as a candidate for all purposes.
This interpretation, however, flies in the face of the plain language of the statute. The language relied upon by the board also assumes that a person who establishes a campaign finance entity will become a full-fledged candidate by filing a certificate of candidacy. The board's interpretation would allow anyone who wants to exceed the campaign finance limits to simply file the paperwork to establish his or her own campaign account and transfer an unlimited amount of money through a slate.
Elections should not be decided by huge donations from well-connected politicians, like Mr. Smith, who raise vast sums of money from developers doing business with the county. Politicians who believe that they are above the campaign finance laws have perverted the original intent of this law and now use the slate provisions to circumvent the limits on campaign contributions that apply to noncandidates.
On Friday, the State Board of Elections denied my request to reconsider its interpretation of the law without requesting legal advice from the assistant attorney general assigned to the board. The board's failure to ask for a legal opinion, on a matter of such ambiguity, raises troubling questions.
What is the board afraid of? On Tuesday, Maryland State Sen. Nancy Jacobs requested Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler to issue a written opinion addressing this important question. Despite its refusal to solicit his advice, the State Board of Elections should have the benefit of the attorney general's opinion on this important matter of statutory interpretation.
In the meantime, the State Board of Elections has given Jim Smith a green light to spend an unlimited amount of money in an attempt to influence the outcome of elections in Baltimore County. Apparently, limits on campaign contributions apply only to the average citizen and not our ruling elite.