ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Republican Party filed a raft of complaints on Thursday alleging that a political organization with ads attacking Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich may have illegally coordinated with Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley’s campaign.
In a complaint submitted to the Internal Revenue Service, the State Board of Elections, the state prosecutor and the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore, the party calls The Maryland Fund a “secret fund” that is “illegally trying to hide its donors while deceiving the voters of Maryland with their intentionally misleading ads.”
John M. Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, told a press conference there is “strong enough evidence that it should be investigated.”
On Sept. 28, The Maryland Fund – a tax-exempt political organization known in political parlance as a 527 – began airing negative television and radio ads linking Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich to President George W. Bush, a theme reiterated on its Web site, EhrlichIsBush.com.
The Web site features two 15-second television ads and a parody of “Jingle Bells” that begins with a festive chorus singing: “Ehrlich, Bush, Ehrlich, Bush / Ehrlich every day / He sides with big corporations / That take your money away.” It also includes a banner image of Ehrlich and Bush morphing back and forth.
While created under the same section of the tax code that governs political campaigns and political action committees, 527 groups are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission and are not held to contribution limits. However, federal election law prohibits 527s from coordinating with political campaigns.
John Rouse, executive director of The Maryland Fund, denied having any contact with O’Malley’s campaign or any other Democratic campaign.
“That would be against the law,” he said by phone from his D.C. office. “Their entire press conference is silly.”
The contested ads do not mention O’Malley but are relentless in attacking Ehrlich with phrases such as “Tell him to stop governing like George Bush” and “Bob Ehrlich/George Bush: Letting big business call the shots.”
Spokesmen for O’Malley’s campaign could not be reached for comment, but in previous press accounts they have denied any connection to the fund.
David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, said his group has “no connection or relationship or communication with this group whatsoever.”
He added, “John Kane has two Republican candidates in this state who are losing in the polls and going downhill fast. [The complaint] is a silly, desperate unsubstantiated accusation designed to get attention without any basis whatsoever.”
Kane said the ads’ authority line, “Paid for by The Maryland Fund,” doesn’t give Maryland voters enough information about who is sponsoring them. He also pointed specifically to Jim Cauley, a Democratic consultant who worked for O’Malley’s 1999 mayoral campaign and is connected to Rouse’s consulting firm.
“In this regard, it appears that these advertisements have likely been coordinated with the O’Malley campaign, and therefore warrants investigation into whether the contribution limits… have been exceeded,” Kane wrote in his complaint.
Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the party, said The Maryland Fund has purchased more than $900,000 worth of television and radio ad time in the D.C. and Baltimore markets. She based the total on information she has received from local media outlets, she said.
“A million dollars is an awful lot to throw around without any identity or authority lines,” Kane said. “It should be identified, where it’s coming from and what connection.”
Rouse acknowledged that Cauley is a member of The Maryland Fund, but said attempts to tie his work for O’Malley “almost a decade ago” to the current ads are “specious and ridiculous.”
“Our lawyer assured us that our authority line is in compliance,” he added. “We comply both with the spirit and the letter of the law.”
Rouse also dismissed a GOP claim that the fund failed to file an IRS report of contributions and expenditures, saying the forms were submitted on paper because “we did not receive the password that allows us to file electronically.”
Political analyst Frank A. DeFilippo said he wasn’t familiar with the ads but characterized the controversy as a political “shot in the dark.” “It’s awful difficult to prove if there’s a connection between a 527 and a candidate,” he said. “At this stage in the campaign, both sides are going to grab anything they can… I don’t see too much there, frankly.”