When Gov. Larry Hogan was on the verge of beating Democrat Ben Jealous to win a second term four years ago, it was no secret that Maryland voters were choosing between a pair of millionaires.
Both the incumbent Republican governor and the challenger released three years of their tax returns. Hogan, it turned out, had improved on his state salary with $2.4 million in corporate earnings from his family-run real estate business and other investments. Jealous, a venture capitalist who previously ran the NAACP, had earned $1.3 million.
That’s because while the candidates who hope to succeed Hogan have filed financial disclosures with the State Ethics Commission — offering a view into professional and financial relationships with companies that do significant business in the state — both declined The Baltimore Sun’s requests to release five years of tax returns.
Cox’s campaign did not acknowledge multiple requests.
Moore campaign spokesman Brian Jones responded by saying the Democrat would take a step that Hogan did not when he transitioned from wealthy businessman to public servant — using a blind trust to hold his assets.
“Wes Moore will continue to exceed every standard set by the current governor in terms of transparency, including his comprehensive financial disclosure and his pledge to put his assets in a blind trust if elected,” Jones said.
Since 2015, Hogan’s real estate business has been handled by a trust. His brother handles the day-to-day affairs of the company. While Hogan is not directly involved in management decisions, he can receive updates from the trust, an arrangement made with the ethics commission.
Transparency advocates, while enthused about Moore’s pledge to use a blind trust instead, urge caution. They say the effectiveness even of a blind trust — which would, ideally, help keep an officeholder from making decisions on behalf of the government that might benefit them financially — depends on its setup.
While a new state law will require Maryland governors to disclose more information starting next year, advocates say further steps toward transparency are necessary.
“We want to know that public officials are making independent judgments and if they have financial interests, that it’s out there and that they recuse themselves from decisions,” said Our Maryland board chair Larry Ottinger, whose progressive organization has sought to track Hogan’s business interests. “To me, it’s one of the most important things for the public trust in government.”
Moore’s and Cox’s required disclosures
Moore, who had a significant lead in a late October Baltimore Sun Media/University of Baltimore poll, has had a career spanning the military, investment banking, government service, writing and philanthropy.
Before starting his campaign in mid-2021, Moore led the Robin Hood Foundation in New York, one of the country’s largest poverty-fighting nonprofits. Moore earned about $1 million in salary and “other compensation” in 2020, his last full year there, according to the group’s tax filings. If Moore takes office in January in Annapolis, the annual salary of $184,000 would be a step down.
In a financial disclosure he was required to file this year as a candidate for statewide office, Moore listed five other companies he had a direct role in and more than two dozen others in which he had a financial interest in 2021.
The five included Under Armour, the Baltimore-based athletic apparel company that has benefited from state grants and tax credits, and Green Thumb Industries, a Chicago-based cannabis company that does business in Maryland.
Moore, who often appears on the campaign trail wearing Under Armour, has served on the company’s board of directors since October 2020.
While his financial disclosure required him only to indicate whether he held more than 1,000 shares of the company, separate filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission show he held nearly 27,500 shares by mid-2021. Recent filings with the SEC — which requires disclosures from “insiders” who have a large role in a company — show he added more this year, for a total of 48,770 shares as of this month.
State records show Under Armour has received $8.4 million in state tax credits and loans since 2016. Also, a contract that runs until February 2023 with the Maryland Department of Health has paid the company nearly $3.5 million to store personal protective equipment, medical equipment and other COVID-19 supplies at two warehouses since the pandemic began, records show.
Green Thumb Industries, meanwhile, has state licenses to grow cannabis and operate a dispensary in Montgomery County. In September, the company donated $25,000 to MD Can ‘22 Inc., a political committee pushing voters statewide to approve a ballot question next month that would legalize recreational use of marijuana in Maryland.
Moore joined the board of Green Thumb Industries in 2018 and resigned in March of this year.
“I’m proud of the work we did to diversify the board and the industry as a whole,” Moore, who is Black, stated in a company news release announcing his resignation. “We need to ensure we have the right leaders at the table of this emerging industry, and I look forward to following their important work of promoting well-being through cannabis.”
Moore’s financial disclosure indicates he had more than 1,000 shares in Green Thumb in 2021, including a purchase of more than $100,000 in shares in March of that year. Separate filings with the SEC show he had about 160,000 shares in March 2021 and increased that to about 170,730 shares over the next 12 months.
Moore’s campaign did not answer questions about whether he would sell his holdings in Under Armour and Green Thumb if elected, saying only “any financial interest in any entity will be placed into a blind trust.”
Jones, the spokesman, also said Moore would “resign from every board position during the transition.”
Ottinger said Moore should step away from Under Armour “right away” because of its important relationship to the development of Baltimore.
“It’s great he’s doing the blind trust, but Under Armour has such an important fingerprint on Baltimore and the state, I just don’t think he wants an appearance issue there,” Ottinger said.
Cox, a freshman member of the state House of Delegates and attorney from Frederick County, has considerably fewer financial complications, according to his disclosures. His legislative salary is $50,330 a year.
The only business Cox solely owned at the end of 2021 was The Cox Law Center LLC, which he valued at more than $100,000. Other investments have included shares in companies that manufacture firearms, shares that he bought and sold within a few months for less than $5,000 each. His 2021 disclosure also includes the fewer than 100 shares he bought in GameStop Corp. at one of the peaks of its “meme-stock” valuation, when hundreds of thousands of smaller and novice investors suddenly bought a piece of the video game retailer.
His disclosures also indicate he and his wife own a rental property in Secretary in Dorchester County, where they previously lived, in addition to their primary residence in Frederick County, which they bought in 2004 for between $350,000 to $499,999.
Moore and his wife, who purchased their North Baltimore home for $2.3 million in 2017, rented out a house in Baltimore’s Riverside neighborhood before they sold it for $355,000 in February 2021, according to property records. The Moores, through a holding company, also owned a property on Park Avenue that they rented to Tabor Ethiopian Cuisine before selling it to the restaurant for $235,000 in 2015, property records show.
More about Moore
Other companies in which Moore reported having a direct role were IAC Interactive Corp., Longview Acquisition Corp. II, and Edquity. He serves on their boards, according to their websites.
IAC Interactive owns digital brands and media companies such as Dotdash Meredith, which runs magazines like People. An annual disclosure for the company noted Moore brought “a new and diverse perspective to IAC’s businesses and initiatives” from his background in philanthropy, advocacy and the military.
At Longview Acquisition, Moore is listed as one of three directors. The company raised $600 million in its initial public offering in 2021 with the intent of acquiring another company or companies “with a particular emphasis on the health care sector,” according to its website.
A similarly organized company that Moore started in 2021, Focus Impact Acquisition Corp., raised more than $200 million to invest in companies that intend to make a “social impact,” according to its website.
“We are both mission driven and returns focused, endeavoring to do well while also doing good,” Moore wrote in a pitch to potential investors at the Focus Impact Acquisition launch, according to SEC records.
Both Focus Impact Acquisition and Longview Acquisition had not officially commenced any operations as of June 30, according to their most recent quarterly reports to the SEC.
Beyond those roles, Moore’s disclosure with the state outlined five other companies he started and solely owned, as well as 21 limited liability companies registered in New Jersey and one Baltimore-based private equity fund, Camden Partners.
His solely owned companies include Omari Productions, which he used to produce a PBS documentary series in 2014 and another documentary in 2016, and BridgeEdu, an education-focused venture he launched in 2014. He valued each at less than $25,000, while listing another company he owns, Elevate Speakers LLC, as being worth between $200,000 and $249,999.
The New Jersey-based companies’ partners and missions are unspecified. Only required to report investments in ranges, Moore listed having less than 3% interest in some and up to 24% in others. The values of the companies are also listed in different, broad ranges, such as “$2 million to $4,999,999.”
With both Hogan and one of his potential successors deeply involved in complicated business ventures, transparency advocates and members of the General Assembly are gearing up to shine more light on public officials’ financial ties.
The Republican governor stepped back from a successful career in real estate development after he won his first four-year term in 2014. Despite criticism from some Democrats and good-government groups, the trust was able to give him updates during his nearly eight years in office.
His annual disclosures to the ethics commission show his connections to companies that within themselves own dozens of limited liability companies. While developers often use such entities to oversee different projects, the additional layers can make their business dealings difficult to track.
In the agreement approved by the commission that stopped short of a full blind trust, Hogan maintained ownership of his real estate projects, but vowed not to have input in them nor with the trustees who manage his assets.
The arrangement spurred the Maryland General Assembly to adopt measures last year that some of its Democratic members say will enhance transparency.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Under the new law, a governor must disclose more information starting next year about limited liability companies. The law also lowers the amount of interest in a company at which an officeholder must disclose the investment. Hogan and his successor will each have to file a report in 2023.
Del. Vaughn Stewart, a Montgomery County Democrat who wrote the legislation, said the changes fix an “antiquated” system that did not take into account the complicated ways businesses are now often structured.
“If we want to make sure that public office doesn’t convert into a private payday, we need more sunshine, and this law will give us more sunshine,” Stewart said.
Stewart said the General Assembly in the future may seek to require candidates to release tax returns or a governor to put investments in a blind trust or divest them.
Craig Holman, a government ethics and campaign finance expert with the watchdog group Public Citizen, said a “genuine blind trust” involves allowing someone who manages it to sell investments and replace them with others that remain unknown to the owner. Such action by a manager would be unusual, he said, but the setup is preferable to trusts where officeholders know what’s in them even if they aren’t managing them.
Moore, whose financial disclosures show he could have “very substantial conflicts of interest,” Holman said, should turn his investments over to a blind trust or otherwise pledge to recuse himself from taking official actions that affect his personal investments.
“There’s still going to be friendships and networks that were built over the years, so some conflicts of interest are always going to remain,” Holman said. “But at least if you break that direct connection, that’s probably the most that we can ask for.”