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Candidates hit up colleagues, lobbyists for money during Maryland General Assembly — and it's legal

It's legal for some to raise money during Maryland's legislative session, but critics say it's not right.

As state lawmakers gathered in late March for the breakneck home stretch of the Maryland General Assembly's legislative session, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh's campaign to become Baltimore's next mayor also was in full swing in Annapolis.

Her campaign emailed lawmakers an invitation to a fundraiser at the Maryland Inn and then dispatched a volunteer to "assertively approach" delegates and senators outside the State House with a paper invite.

A spokesman for Pugh said the senator wasn't pleased when she saw the volunteer and sent him home. But the campaign's targeted efforts paid off: During the 90-day session, the Senate majority leader raised $33,650 from Democratic senators. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller gave her the maximum $6,000 on the first day of the session, according to campaign finance reports.

State lawmakers are allowed to raise campaign funds during the session only if they are running for local or federal offices. A fundraising ban on lawmakers seeking state office was established in 1997 to curb the appearance of impropriety, so that lawmakers aren't soliciting campaign contributions while voting on legislation that could affect donors.

Pugh reported raising $570,833 during the legislative session, including contributions from lobbyists who appeared before the Senate Finance Committee on which she sits. Her competitors in the mayor's race have criticized the donations, saying they violate the spirit of the fundraising ban.

Pugh, who also held a February fundraiser in Annapolis, was not alone in the General Assembly among candidates who were free to raise money.

State Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat running for Congress in Maryland's 8th District, raised $565,841 during the session. Del. Ana Sol-Gutierrez, a Democrat running against Raskin for the House seat, raised $22,085.

Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, a Prince George's County Democrat, raised $291,000 during that same period in her bid to capture the 4th Congressional District seat that is also being sought by former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Republican seeking the nomination for Maryland's open U.S. Senate seat, raised $260,000. And Del. Kumar Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat running for the 8th Congressional District seat, raised $52,524 in the period that includes the session, according to federal campaign finance reports.

In the past, some candidates have declined to raise money during the legislative session — even when it would have been allowed.

In 2014, Brown and his Democratic challenger for governor, Attorney General Douglas Gansler, were prohibited from fundraising during the session. But Brown's running mate, former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, could have raised money.

The campaign decided not to do so to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Their primary, however, was in June, giving them time to raise money after the session. The primary this year was moved to April 26; the legislative session ended April 11.

Raskin said state lawmakers would be at a significant disadvantage if they were prohibited from raising money during session.

"Those three months immediately before the election is when people are most interested in campaigns," Raskin said.

A spokesman for Pugh said she received approval to raise money during session from the state's Ethics Commission.

"She spent 20 years in public life, and never once has she been questioned about her integrity," said Anthony McCarthy, her spokesman.

Government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland said the fundraising law is flawed.

"The problem is not the campaign using the loophole. The problem is that the loophole exists," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the group's executive director.

Mayoral candidate Elizabeth Embry, who trailed Pugh and former Mayor Sheila Dixon in polling conducted this month for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore, said a change is needed.

"It's exploiting a loophole that was not intended," Embry said. She said the fundraising ban didn't apply to local and federal races so that candidates could raise money in their home jurisdictions.

She said candidates should not be allowed to "take advantage of their state seat to use their position to solicit from the very people who are trying to get legislation passed."

"It goes against the spirit of the law," she said.

Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Baltimore, said Pugh and the other candidates are nonetheless operating within the law.

"She's taking full advantage of her current position, which anyone would do," Henderson said. "Why wouldn't you? She's leading in the polls. She's doing everything she can to pull out all the stops."

Candidates also noted that the law clearly allows members of the General Assembly to raise money during the legislative session, and that they accepted contributions from a broad range of donors.

Leslie Shedd, a spokeswoman for the Szeliga campaign, said the candidate "has enjoyed a broad base of support from Democrats and Republicans from all walks of life. She has always had an open-door policy, no matter the person's occupation or political affiliation, and will continue to that."

Mollie Binotto, Pena-Melnyk's campaign manager, said fellow lawmakers donated to her campaign because they were friends and colleagues, not because of a concerted fundraising effort.

Barve said he did not actively solicit campaign contributions during the session. If people liked the work that he was doing in Annapolis and decided to donate to his campaign, Barve said, he was "totally comfortable with that."

"The funny thing is that the money that I raised during the legislative session sort of raised itself because I spent the whole time chairing my committee," he said. "I don't think I dialed for a single dollar during that 90 days."

Pugh does not chair any committees in the Senate, though she does sit on the powerful Finance Committee. Her role as majority leader comes with strictly ceremonial duties, but it makes her a key Annapolis powerbroker who has the support of Miller, who frequently referred to her during legislative proceedings as "the next mayor of Baltimore."

Several lobbyists who donated to Pugh said they saw nothing unusual about her fundraising. Among lobbyists, none gave as much to Pugh as the firm of Gerard Evans and his wife. Together they have contributed $7,500 since October, with two-thirds coming during the session.

"I never spoke to her once during the session about fundraising," Evans said. "Not once did she call me. You get fliers and tickets. They get mailed to you. But never once did she call me or apply any pressure on me. I supported her last time for mayor against Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. I was in from day one, 100 percent."

Evans attended a Feb. 3 fundraiser for Pugh at Red Red Wine, a popular Annapolis spot for raising money.

"If you're not involved in politics at the fundraising level, you're in the wrong business," Evans said.

Miller said no one is a greater champion of Baltimore in the General Assembly than Pugh and criticized her opponents for "taking potshots at her."

"She's the hardest-working person in that race. She's one of the hardest-working members in the Senate," Miller said. "There's nothing there. She's clean as a hound's tooth."

One prominent lobbyist, Frank Boston, did not donate to Pugh's campaign.

"I think Catherine Pugh has the highest integrity," Boston said. "Obviously, it's legal. ... But I didn't think it was wise for me, as one of the few lobbyists who lobby both Baltimore City government and the state legislature, to attend her fundraisers."

The Pugh campaign was clearly aware of the sensitive nature of raising money during the session.

In the email invitation to the March fundraiser, Pugh's campaign chairman, Kent Krabbe, included a link to state law explaining that candidates seeking local and federal offices are allowed to raise money.

But Pugh said she was uncomfortable seeing one of her volunteers distribute fliers for the fundraising event outside the State House.

An email from a Pugh campaign employee, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, stated that volunteers should "assertively approach" state lawmakers "who are walking into" the State House.

When Pugh saw the volunteer, she said she was not pleased.

"Admittedly, they should not have recruited or had volunteers approaching legislators," McCarthy said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Ian Duncan and Erin Cox contributed to this article.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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