By Glynis Kazanjian
The gubernatorial campaign for Attorney General Douglas Gansler plans to file a campaign finance violation complaint against both the Brown-Ulman campaign and a political action committee that has spent money attacking Gansler.
The complaint will be filed June 25 — the day after the primary election — and is based on recently filed campaign finance reports that show chief fundraisers for gubernatorial frontrunners Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and running mate Ken Ulman have been consulting for a PAC that is running attack ads against Brown’s biggest rival, Gansler.
While it is not against state campaign finance law to do so, any coordination or cooperation between the two parties that is related to the ads could be. The Brown campaign denies the allegations, saying any alleged violations of election rules would be “factually inaccurate.”
Spending with coordination would exceed contribution limits
The ads could run afoul of campaign finance laws intended to set limits on contributions. The ads are “independent expenditures” because they were made by an independent entity, One State, One Future PAC. Independent expenditures aid in promoting the success or defeat of a candidate or political party, and could come in the form of television or radio advertisements, or mailers, for example.
If there has been cooperation or coordination between the PAC and the Brown-Ulman Campaign — or agents on their behalf — the expenditure is no longer considered independent and it becomes an in-kind contribution, which counts against contribution limits.
Maryland’s campaign finance laws limit PAC contributions to candidates to $6,000 in any four-year election cycle.
“Given that the State Board of Elections would not take action on a complaint until after the primary — and any action they took would be a monetary fine and not pulling down the ad — our campaign is focused like a laser on winning this election and will file a complaint on June 25,” said Katie Hill, Gansler Campaign spokesperson.
Watchdog group raises concerns
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director for Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group, said the activities at a minimum give the appearance of possible collaboration.
“This just shows how easy it is for collusion, or at least the risk of collusion, to occur,” said Bevan-Dangel. “Both the PAC and the Brown campaign need to show the firewalls in place to prove that coordination didn’t occur. The burden is on the entities to prove.”
The finance consultants hired by both the PAC and Brown campaign have been on the books with One State, One Future PAC all year, according to campaign finance reports filed May 27.
Brown-Ulman Campaign Manager Justin Schall said no employees or staff work for both entities.
“They are consultants,” Schall said. “I don’t get to tell them who they can and can’t work for. In fact, I don’t even know who they are working for. Both of them literally have dozens of other clients. It has nothing to do with this campaign.”
Other filings show hotel expense reimbursements in San Francisco for two Brown-Ulman campaign staff members for late July and early August, 2013. The hotels are in the immediate vicinity of an address listed on One State, One Future’s May 27 campaign finance report as VR Research. The report states the PAC paid VR Research, a political consulting firm, $20,000.
VR Research President Mike Rice and Vice President Austin Burke declined to comment.
Complaints go to the Maryland State Board of Elections
Jared DeMarinis, candidacy and campaign finance director for the State Board of Elections, said no complaints had been filed.
“If there is evidence of cooperation or coordination it will be reviewed,” DeMarinis said. “We have the ability to review any complaint or submissions to the State Board to ensure compliance of the law.”
The Gansler Campaign said it is the voters who suffer when potential campaign violations are not followed up on.
“Weak remedies and a failure to act quickly to punish campaign violations means that there’s nothing to deter campaigns, like Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s, from colluding with outside special-interest groups,” said Hill. “As a result, third-party spending drowns out the voice of the people. Tragically, the biggest losers are the voters and the biggest winners are entrenched special interests and corrupt politicians.”
In January, the state election board laid out eight factors to consider when determining whether campaigns and third-party entities, such as political action committees (PACs), had acted illegally when producing “independent expenditures.”
“I think it shows a lack of staff resources at the State Board of Elections,” said Bevan-Dangel. “The State Board doesn’t have the capacity to audit. Clearly they need more auditing staff and an investigative staff. When the election is over, you don’t get a recall. Having an investigative staff in this close to the election would help keep a check on any improper campaign activities.”
Consultants overlap between campaigns
According to a May campaign finance report, between January 31, 2014 and May, 2014, One State, One Future PAC paid Brown’s finance consultant, Martin-Lauer Associates, $20,000. In 2013, Friends of Anthony Brown reported payments of approximately $117,000 to Martin-Lauer, and in 2014 Friends of Ken Ulman paid Martin-Lauer $8,000.
From Jan. 31, 2014 to May 1, 2014, One State, One Future paid Ulman’s finance consultant Susan Smith-Bauk $10,000, while Smith-Bauk earned $133,500 from Friends of Ken Ulman between Jan. 17, 2013 and April 15, 2014.
Other filings reveal that the law firm Sandler, Reiff, Young and Lamb, who received $28,000 for attorney fees between 2013 and 2014 from Friends of Anthony Brown, also collected $5,000 from One State, One Future in 2014.
Little information given on hotel stays
The 2013 hotel expenditures show that Brown-Ulman Campaign Manager Justin Schall and Michael Schultz expensed the San Francisco hotel rooms near VR Research.
Schall said he never made the trip. “Let me be clear, I didn’t go to California last year.”
Schall said that he doesn’t doubt it was an official campaign expense but did not recall any details of the purpose of the trip or who went. He said he often times pays for expenses for other campaign staff and then he is reimbursed.
Neither Sandler, Martin-Lauer or Smith-Bauk returned requests for comment.
Last fall, the Brown-Ulman campaign called upon all three campaigns to participate in a “Positive Campaign Pledge,” which decried the use of campaign propaganda that produced advertisements that attacks an opponent by name or title.
“I think what Marylanders are most sick of is negative attack ads so we’re raising the bar with our Positive Campaign Pledge,” the pledge read. But Brown said it would only be effective if the other two campaigns agreed to sign on.