Company owned by David Trone agrees to pay $150k to settle campaign finance citations

Trone spent more of his own money on his primary race than any self-funded House candidate in history.

A major Democratic fundraiser who ran for Congress in Maryland this year has agreed to pay $150,000 after prosecutors cited his company for exceeding campaign contribution limits to local political candidates.

A company run by David Trone, who hosted President Barack Obama at his home for a fundraiser last fall and who this month hosted the Democratic nominee for vice president, Tim Kaine, was cited by prosecutors for making a dozen contributions, according to the Maryland State Prosecutor's office. 

Trone, a Potomac man who spent more of his own money on his primary election campaign for the state's 8th Congressional District this year than any self-funded House candidate in history -- $13.3 million -- reached a settlement with prosecutors that was announced Friday. The company, Retail Services and Systems, will pay $5,000 for each citation, and make a $90,000 contribution to the Maryland Fair Campaign Financing Fund.

An attorney for Trone’s company said the settlement does not include an admission of wrongdoing.

Prosecutors said the donations were made during the 2010 to 2014 election cycles, including to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown and Comptroller Peter Franchot.   

"Contributions of hundreds of thousands of dollars, given at the direction and under the control of a single entity, could result in the appearance of undue influence on the part of the contributors," State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said in a statement. 

"In this case, the state does not have any evidence that the over-contributions were made knowing that the act was unlawful," he added.

State prosecutors said they issued a dozen citations to Trone's company, each carrying a $5,000 fine -- or $60,000 in total. As part of the settlement, the company will pay $60,000, but an attorney for Trone's company, Robert Shaffer, said the payment is not a fine.

"The terms of the agreement include no fine, no penalty, and no admission of any wrongdoing or any liability," Shaffer said in a statement. "The companies had a strong legal basis for successfully challenging any adverse action taken by the state. But we ultimately decided it is in our interest to accept the terms of this settlement and close this matter rather than pursue litigation."

The company agreed to the settlement, Shaffer said, "to avoid the costs and distractions of prolonged litigation."

The campaign contributions from Trone's company came at a time when Maryland allowed limited liability companies to make contributions directly to candidates. Because it is impossible for the public to determine the ownership of those entities, a wealthy donor was allowed to set up an unlimited number of them to skirt donation limits.

Had Trone done that, he likely would have been in the clear (lawmakers have since closed that loophole). Instead, Trone's company made the donations from entities that were more easily traced back to him, suggesting he was potentially unaware of the law.

The state prosecutor's office noted that Maryland election law provides for civil penalties in cases where a contributor does not know the contributions were illegal.

Still, the settlement would almost certainly become fodder for political opponents if Trone runs for office again. Trone already faced criticism this year for controversial comments he made about his political spending and lobbying on behalf of his company.

"I sign my checks to buy access," Trone told The Washington Post in late January.

His campaign later insisted that he was misquoted, though he made similar statements to The Baltimore Sun and other outlets when he first entered the race.

Trone, the co-owner of Potomac-based liquor retailer Total Wine & More, splashed onto the state's political scene in January, entering a crowded primary field that included state Sen. Jamie Raskin, who ultimately won the contest; Kathleen Matthews, the wife of MSNBC personality Chris Matthews; and others.

Trone's radio and television advertising was ubiquitous in the Washington and Baltimore media markets ahead of the state's April 26 primary.

Since the April primary, there has been considerable speculation that Trone may be considering another run for office. During the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer Trone appeared at least one event to hobnob with Maryland's delegation.

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