By Glynis Kazanjian
Calls for an ethics probe into Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola’s campaign contributions from State House lobbyists by 6th District primary challenger John Delaney will likely go unanswered unless a formal complaint is filed, according to Legislative Ethics Committee Counsel William Somerville.
“While reasonable people can see a conflict of interest, and Lord knows that it’s one of the situations that causes concern on all levels of government – the influence of campaign contributions – it is not something that the Maryland Ethics Law restricts in any way,” Somerville said in an interview. “There’s never been a legal presumption of conflict of interest based on received campaign contributions.”
Delaney, who faces Garagiola in the 6th Congressional District primary election April 3, has repeatedly called out Garagiola for his alleged ties to lobbyists, citing numerous campaign contributions and employment as a lobbyist with Greenberg Traurig. But, the Delaney campaign has stopped short of filing a complaint.
But Delaney is not without his own ties to major Washington lobbyists. Next week, six partners at Patton Boggs, perhaps D.C.’s largest lobbying firm, with $48 million in lobbying revenues last year, will host a breakfast fundraiser for Delaney at the firm’s M Street offices, with contributions starting at $500.
$75,000 from federal and state lobbyists
Garagiola’s 2011 4th quarter campaign finance report shows that 33% of individual contributions came from lobbyists or individuals directly affiliated with lobbying firms, accounting for approximately $75,000 of $225,000 raised. Some lobby Congress but a number of contributors lobby the Maryland General Assembly and have historically contributed to Garagiola’s legislative campaigns.
An additional $88,000 was raised through political action committees, where some cross over was seen from lobbyists on the individual contributors list. And some contributors, like Exelon, Constellation Energy and Sun Edison are companies intimately involved with decisions that will be made this legislative session by the Senate Finance Committee on which Garagiola serves.
Among the contributions from registered lobbyists or people who work at lobbying firms was: $4,500 from nine employees of Alexander & Cleaver; $4,500 from eight employees at Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver; $3,000 from three principals at Capitol Strategies; and smaller contributions of $250 and up from a number of other Annapolis lobbyists. There was also $12,500 in contributions from William Rickman, the owner of Ocean Downs raceway and casino, and his family. The legislature deals with dozens of bills related to racetracks and gambling.
Delaney camp cites loophole, conflicts
“Garagiola is exploiting a loophole in the law by directing funds to his congressional account from lobbyists who have a direct interest in influencing his legislative voice,” said Delaney campaign spokesman Max Cummings. “At the very least, Garagiola’s special interest contributions have violated protections against the appearance of impropriety. We encourage the Ethics Committee to investigate his fundraising activities during legislative session.”
According to the conflict of interest provisions in the Legislative Ethics Guidelines, legislators “are expected to look at their business and personal interests from the perspective of the general public to determine if anything presents the appearance of a conflict of interest.” If there is even the appearance of conflict of interest, legislators are instructed to address it, the guidelines state.
Remedies include filing a disclaimer for the relationship that may be considered a conflict of interest or recusal from certain votes, which Delaney has called for. Somerville said legislators are actively filing disclaimer forms this session.
The ethics code also references as conflict of interest a legislator “benefiting financially from a close economic association with a person (including a lobbyist or a business that has employed a lobbyist) who has a direct interest in an enterprise or interest that would be affected by proposed legislation in a manner different from other like enterprises or interests.”
But Somerville said the current interpretation of the Ethics Law by the Joint Committee of Legislative Ethics is that lobbyist contributions have not historically been regarded as a conflict of interest and initiating an inquiry would be inconsistent with a long standing precedent.
Any complaints against Garagiola or any other legislator are handled confidentially, Somerville said, but complaintants are free to discuss them.
Garagiola campaign fires back
Garagiola spokesman Sean Rankin says Garagiola has upheld the law and operated appropriately.
“Maryland State Law specifically states that candidates for federal office who are Maryland office-holders are allowed to raise money during session,” Rankin said. “Our campaign is acting ethically and according to the regulations. Election Day for the Democratic Primary just happens to occur at the same time as the session, and we had no power or influence over the setting of either of those dates.”
Rankin also called Delaney a hypocrite, citing the Feb. 29 Delaney fundraiser hosted by D.C. power lobbyist Patton Boggs.
“If John Delaney really believes that lobbyists are ruining our country, as he has stated on many occasions in this campaign, then why did he accept an event at Patton Boggs, the most prominent lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.?,” Rankin asked.
“He attacks Rob and then tries to get away with doing the same thing. He’s a hypocrite and the real insider in the race: an insider who avoided answering why he contributed to Andy Harris by pointing out the millions of dollars he has bundled for campaigns! What does John Delaney think he is getting by raising all that money? John Delaney is an insider’s insider, not a newcomer to politics, and a hypocrite.”
Campaign manager Max Cumming shot back: “The same week that Garagiola supported the censuring of State Senator Currie for failing to disclose a personal relationship with a contributor, Garagiola should come clean about the relationship between lobbyist funds to his congressional campaign and his legislative interests.”
“As an elected official, Rob Garagiola has an obligation to either recuse himself from a vote or to disclose how he took advantage of legislative position to raise money for his congressional campaign.”