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Politics

Fundraiser launches to defend Marilyn and Nick Mosby from criminal tax investigation. How does that work?

A charity fund has begun accepting donations on behalf of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and City Council President Nick Mosby as they defend themselves against the ongoing federal criminal tax investigation.

On the fundraising website Donorbox, people may give to the “The Mosby 2021 Trust.” Donors can choose among giving once, weekly or monthly in any amount or the recommended gifts of $10 to $1,000. The fundraiser comes as the Mosbys brace for hefty legal fees to fight the U.S. Attorneys Office in Baltimore.

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Although the two have not been charged, grand jury subpoenas were issued earlier this year as part of a criminal tax investigation into the Democratic power couple. Both hired lawyers for the federal investigation, and also separate attorneys for probes conducted by the Inspector General’s Office and the Attorney Grievance Commission. Marilyn Mosby’s personal attorney says the state offices referred the matter to federal prosecutors.

That attorney, A. Scott Bolden, said last week the couple’s legal defense fund will be managed by an “uninterested legal trustee.” Marilyn Mosby has declined to answer questions about the fund. Bolden declined questions, too. The identity of the trustee remains unknown.

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The website Donorbox has not responded to questions by email.

In Maryland, legal defense funds are strictly regulated by the state ethics law, which restricts what gifts office holders may accept, regulates who can solicit the gifts, and requires disclosure of allowable gifts.

State ethics officials are barred from speaking publicly about the Mosbys or any other public officials. But the restrictions on legal defense funds are outlined in a 1993 opinion by the Maryland’s State Ethics Commission, and underscored by a 2017 ethics commission guideline on gifts. The commission issued the 1993 opinion at the request of the St. Mary’s County sheriff at the time. He wanted to solicit donations to support a $1.5 million defamation lawsuit against a weekly newspaper in Southern Maryland.

The ethics commission concluded his fund should be subject to “significant constraints” because donations would be considered gifts under state law.

The state’s ethics law bans almost all gifts from “controlled donors,” people or businesses who do work with an official’s agency, are regulated by that agency, or have “private interests that can be impacted by an official’s performance of his duties.”

In the case of the sheriff, the commission said controlled donors would include people with matters pending before the sheriff’s office, people who provide services or materials to the office, or attorneys, inmates or others in the criminal justice system.

It is unclear if these restrictions would prohibit the Mosby defense fund from accepting money from other lawyers in Baltimore, such as defense attorneys who represent the people charged by Marilyn Mosby’s office.

News of a charity fund for the lightning-rod couple elicited strong reactions. The Mosbys’ critics take issue with what they perceive to be the gall of accepting public donations while being investigated for possibly cheating on their taxes. Further, Marilyn Mosby bought two homes in Florida for more than $1 million combined in the past year. She makes about $238,000; Nick, $128,000.

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“Having a legal defense fund is warranted, even with them making the salaries they make. The federal government has crushed millionaires with those same type of tactics,” said Pless Jones Jr., of P&J Contracting Co., a longtime supporter of the Mosbys.

The Baltimore defense attorney Warren Brown took to Facebook to encourage folks to support the couple.

“It’s not taxpayer dollars. Nobody’s forcing anybody to contribute. If they want to contribute, they can,” he said later by phone. “These types of cases run into really the high six-figures, so there’s nothing wrong with somebody saying to the public, ‘Hey, can you help me out?’”

Marilyn Mosby has hired a white-collar defense attorney with a national reputation for her lawyer. Bolden serves as a frequent commentator on cable news shows. A partner in the D.C. office of the big law firm Reed Smith LLP, he’s represented personalities from Washington Football Team owner Daniel Snyder to “The Real Housewives of Potomac” star Monique Samuels. A top-flight defense attorney may charge more than $1,000 an hour.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, weighed in recently with remarks to Fox 45. He called the fundraising “a little inappropriate.”

“I know they’re under investigation. They’re going to have some pretty serious legal fees, but I’m not sure it’s appropriate for them to be raising money,” he said.

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Legal defense funds have been used historically by some of the nation’s most powerful elected officials, including Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.

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Maryland’s ethics law requires officials who receive legal gifts to report any worth more than $20 on their annual ethics disclosure forms. Also they must disclose “each of two or more gifts with a cumulative value of $100 or more received from one entity.”

Ethics disclosures are due annually for state and city officials. Although Marilyn Mosby’s salary is paid by Baltimore, she is considered a state official. Ethics filings for state employees are due April 30.

Nick Mosby, a city official, is subject to the city’s ethics law, which requires him to file by Jan. 30.

Baltimore’s ethics law does not specifically address legal defense funds, nor has the city’s Board of Ethics issued opinions on the subject, said Jeffrey Hochstetler, the board director. The city’s restrictions on gifts, however, generally apply to any mechanism to receive donations, he said, noting he cannot speak specifically about any public official.

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“If it’s being solicited on behalf of that public servant, that could potentially count as indirect acceptance, and then we would be concerned if any of that is coming from controlled donors or if requests were going to controlled donors,” Hochstetler said.

Baltimore’s ethics law bars a public servant from soliciting gifts or facilitating the solicitation of gifts from controlled donors. There are exceptions for city-endorsed charitable functions and instances pre-approved by the Board of Ethics. Absent a local advisory opinion, the city board sometimes looks to past positions from the state ethics commission if the law in that area is similar, Hochstetler said.


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