O'Malley DGA fundraising: The appearance of conflict

Perhaps it is a pure coincidence that Energy Answers International cut a $100,000 check to the Martin O'Malley-led Democratic Governors Association on the very same day that Governor O'Malley indicated he would sign state legislation that could be worth millions to the company. Perhaps it is also coincidental that Exelon Corp.'s support for the DGA increased tenfold at the same time that the Chicago energy firm was seeking Maryland regulators' approval for its merger with Constellation Energy Group. Or that wind energy companies that stand to benefit from Governor O'Malley's support for their industry started giving more to the group after he took charge, or that a company looking for state approval to build a new natural gas power plant in Southern Maryland gave its first major donation to the DGA this year. Maybe it's all a big coincidence, as Governor O'Malley insists — but it sure looks bad.

The Sun's Annie Linskey reported Sunday that the O'Malley-led DGA set a record for fundraising during the first six months of the year, with contributions of $11 million. In several instances, she wrote, companies made their first donations in recent memory or substantially increased their level of support for the organization at the same time that Governor O'Malley, the state legislature or state regulators were considering matters in which they had a financial interest.

Because contributions to the DGA (and its Republican counterpart) are unlimited, the analysis of contributions during Mr. O'Malley's brief tenure as the group's chairman presents an eye-popping lesson in the connections between campaign contributions and self interest. But it is present as well even in the more highly regulated realm of state political contributions. Although individuals and businesses are limited to giving $4,000 to an individual candidate in Maryland per election cycle (and $12,000 overall), donors have found loopholes that allow them to give far more.

A recent analysis by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Maryland Tax Education Foundation showed that the 2010 O'Malley campaign raised well over $1 million from families and businesses that managed to give at least $15,000. Some, including real estate developer William Rickman, who also owns one of Maryland's slots parlors, managed to give considerably more than that. The MTEF analysis found that various Rickman businesses contributed more than $71,000 during the four-year election cycle. Edward St. John, another real estate developer, gave $67,250. Others with interests in Maryland gambling or with large state government contracts gave tens of thousands more. The MTEF's conclusion: The people who gave the most money to the governor's campaign almost universally had something to gain from the decisions Mr. O'Malley's administration made.

In response to Ms. Linskey's questions about the DGA fundraising, Mr. O'Malley said he has always kept the considerations of campaigning separate from the considerations of governance, and that the contributions do not affect his judgment in making decisions of importance to the people of Maryland. Perhaps so, but it is difficult to imagine that those making such large contributions don't, at a minimum, have an easier time getting the governor's ear.

There is nothing new about any of this, and Mr. O'Malley is not doing anything his predecessors didn't do. His position at the DGA and his presumed national ambitions merely add another conduit for political business as usual. And sadly, the fundraising Mr. O'Malley has done on his own behalf and for the DGA represents nothing close to the most disturbing aspects of campaign finance today.

The sudden interest in the DGA from firms with business in Maryland is ugly, but at least the public has a chance to see what's going on. After the Supreme Court's recent Citizens United decision, there are now legal avenues for businesses and individuals to pour unlimited amounts of money into supporting or opposing a candidate for federal office with no disclosure whatsoever. The New York Times reported on Sunday that two groups that do not disclose their donors — Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity — are already spending millions on negative advertising against President Barack Obama. (President Obama has been vocally critical of such groups, but some of his former aides have founded a similar organization, Priorities USA; a related group, Priorities USA Action, does disclose its donors and has already begun airing attack ads against Republicans.)

Democrats in Congress — including Maryland's Rep. Chris Van Hollen — have been pushing for new, stricter disclosure requirements. But as Mr. O'Malley's tenure at the DGA shows, disclosure by itself doesn't prevent conflicts of interest, or at least the appearance thereof. The only real chance to cure what ails the system on the federal, state and local levels is to institute public campaign finance. Politicians often brush off that suggestion by saying the public has no interest in tax dollars paying for their campaigns. But it certainly beats having to wonder why Energy Answers International suddenly got so interested in the DGA.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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