Michael Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor who is contemplating a run for governor, must disclose information about his exploratory campaign to show he isn’t running afoul of campaign finance laws.
The Maryland State Board of Elections sent a letter to Steele, a Republican, requesting the details by Oct. 11. The letter came in response to a complaint that Steele was improperly using a federal account to raise and spend money for a future state campaign in Maryland.
Steele’s team said it views the letter, dated Sept. 9, as a vindication that they are properly using their federal account in advance of potentially launching a gubernatorial campaign and creating a state campaign finance account.
Jim Dornan, an advisor to Steele, said the campaign will send its documentation to the Maryland State Board of Elections “long before” the Oct. 11 deadline. The Steele campaign is raising and spending money through what’s known as a “527” account, named for the section of federal tax code that authorizes such nonprofit accounts for political activities.
This type of federal political committee is required to file periodic reports with the Internal Revenue Service, detailing contributions and expenditures. But a 527 account has significant advantages, such as no limit on how much an individual or company can donate to the committee. A campaign committee organized under Maryland law can accept only a maximum of $6,000 per donor for each four-year cycle.
Maryland has no formal process for creating an exploratory committee.
Dornan dismissed the questions about Steele’s exploratory committee as baseless complaints from supporters of Del. Dan Cox, a Frederick County Republican running for governor.
“We get it,” Dornan said. “They don’t have anything else to stand on. It’s all part of the process and part of the game. It’s not going to keep us from doing what we need to do for Maryland.”
Cox said in a statement that the Steele team’s allegation that the campaign finance complaint is the work of his campaign is “patently false, libelous, and defamatory.”
“To be clear, we have not studied or examined anything regarding federal 527s and their use and have formed no opinion on that topic,” Cox wrote in the statement.
Del. Lauren Arikan issued a press release last month saying that she had filed a complaint about Steele’s fundraising and campaigning. Arikan did not make copies of the complaint available, but said in a statement that Steele should be subjected to the same limits as state campaign accounts, such as a $6,000 limit on campaign donations.
Arikan, a Republican who represents parts of Harford and Baltimore counties, said in a statement that it is dishonest of Steele’s campaign to claim “that I am working on behalf of anyone other than the people of Maryland.”
Arikan said she wants to make sure that all candidates for governor campaign on a level playing field.
“I have not endorsed or worked with Dan Cox for Governor,” Arikan wrote in the statement. “I have decided to stay completely out of the gubernatorial Republican primary. I wish them all the best and look forward to the general.”
The other announced candidates in the Republican primary are Kelly Schulz, the state commerce secretary, and Robin Ficker, an anti-tax advocate and perennial candidate for public office.
Steele has said he’s seriously considering a return to politics with a gubernatorial run. He was Maryland’s lieutenant governor under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. from 2003 until 2007, made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 2006 and was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 2009 through 2011. Since 2011, he’s worked as a political analyst on MSNBC.
Dornan said Steele has been buoyed by the support he’s received, including at the Maryland Association of Counties conference in Ocean City last month. He expects to make a decision about running in the next four to six weeks.
“We got a great reception at MACo and he’s getting a lot of encouragement,” Dornan said. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, but he’s got a lot of people who want him to do this.”
The Democrats have nine announced candidates in their primary.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, is in his second term and is barred from running again due to term limits.