ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland State Board of Elections is carefully reviewing the two complaints Maryland gubernatorial campaigns have filed against each other in the past two weeks.
But theirs are not the only electoral grievances filed with the state.
Anyone can file a campaign finance complaint, and they do: Maryland Board of Elections’ records of a dozen complaints this year show everyone from private citizens to disgruntled campaign employees are feeling aggrieved this election season. And the state prosecutor’s office has received many more.
In the gubernatorial race, GOP nominee Larry Hogan filed a complaint against Democrat Anthony Brown Sept. 4, charging that the lieutenant governor’s campaign coordinated with a super PAC by sharing the same political consultants. Brown filed his complaint on Tuesday, alleging his challenger’s campaign was underpaying for the use of a tour bus, which Hogan owns.
The question of coordination between candidates and political-fundraising groups is part of a larger national trend that has emerged since the rise of political action committees and has left campaign staff and election lawyers grappling with the legal consequences.
“The whole existence of super PACs depends on them being independent of the campaign,” said Larry Noble, counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan advocacy group.
Noble said that this has put the focus on what constitutes coordination.
“What we see is candidates appearing at events for their super PACs. We see common vendors between the super PAC and the campaign.”
Courts and election boards across the nation are trying to resolve the legality of these overlapping interests.
Jared DeMarinis, director of the Division of Candidacy and Campaign Finance at the Maryland State Board of Elections, said that concern about coordination between PACs and candidates is a 50-state issue.
With Election Day less than eight weeks away and a new poll from the New York Times/CBS showing Brown at 51 percent to Hogan’s 37, time is running short and pressure is rising for the candidates to scrutinize each other’s finances.
Hogan’s complaint accuses the Democratic candidate of illegally coordinating with a super PAC called One State, One Future by sharing the same political consulting firm, Martin-Lauer Associates.
The Baltimore-based firm has worked with other high-profile Democrats in the state, including Gov. Martin O’Malley and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Martin-Lauer Associates did not respond to a request for comment.
Brown’s complaint accuses Hogan of campaign finance violations including deceptive reporting and underreporting the cost of Hogan’s campaign bus.
The campaign pays Hogan, who owns the bus, $683.77 per month for its use as an office – which they say is the same amount he pays to finance the vehicle – according to the expenditure filings from Hogan-Rutherford.
Although Hogan’s campaign has not revealed what he paid for the bus, the Maryland Democratic Party alleges in its complaint that “online sales information indicates that similar models retail for between $97,000 and $225,000.”
And, the Maryland Democratic Party says, according to vendors, the $683.77 reflects what it would cost to operate such a vehicle per day, not per month.
The state’s campaign finance law states that the bus must be rented at a fair market value and the Democratic Party is accusing Hogan-Rutherford of underreporting Hogan’s in-kind contributions.
“Each of these cases, they are fact-based,” Noble said. “The motive for the complaint becomes irrelevant if it is a fact-based complaint.”
But Todd Eberly, assistant professor in the political science department at St. Mary’s College, said that there are political advantages to filing campaign finance complaints.
Hogan’s campaign is restricted by his decision to accept public financing, which means there are limitations on total spending and further rules on how the $2.6 million of public money is used.
In the case of the bus, if the elections board decides that Hogan’s campaign should be paying more, it would mean re-directing more of Hogan’s limited funds there instead of toward other expenses.
DeMarinis, with the electoral board, said that complaints at the gubernatorial level are not common, and are more often filed in other races across the state.
The State Board of Elections receives campaign finance complaints for state, county and Baltimore elections. Local election complaints are received by that municipality, said Alisha Alexander, elections administrator with the Prince George’s County Board of Elections.
Complaints of violations that appear criminal in nature are forwarded to the state prosecutor’s office, because the board of elections does not have the authority to conduct criminal investigations, said Nicolle Norris, senior assistant state prosecutor.
Her office has received about 150 complaints since the beginning of the year. They range from failures to file campaign finance reports on time to more serious violations that require deeper investigations, Norris said. Norris said that legal restrictions prohibited her from disclosing any complaints sent to her office.
Here’s a sample of complaints filed thus far this year with the Maryland State Board of Elections:
• A complaint alleges one candidate’s campaign committee donated $6,000, the maximum allowed, to another candidate, and later also paid for the second candidate’s direct mail, thereby exceeding the donation limit.
• A campaign staffer for a candidate for delegate disputed reimbursements for lodging. He also charged the candidate forged the campaign treasurer’s signature, among other complaints.
• In one case, the complaint stated that a candidate was added to the ballot without a valid campaign committee.
• One candidate in a Democratic primary filed a wide-ranging 20-page complaint requesting nullification of the election due to corruption among the media, non-profits, and the state board of elections.
For information about non-municipal campaign-finance complaints, visit the Maryland State Board of Elections online, at www.elections.state.md.us.