A Baltimore development company headed by the chairman of Democrats for Ehrlich has violated state law limiting to $10,000 campaign contributions in a single election - giving at least $20,565 in donations to both Republicans and Democrats.
Wayne R. Frazier Sr., chief executive of Powhatan Development Co. LLC, said he did not know about the longstanding provision of Maryland election law.
"I will take the responsibility for my ignorance," Frazier said. He added that he will seek refunds from candidates to bring his contributions under the limit.
The contributions are listed on a database maintained by the state election board. When the gifts were brought to the attention of board officials, they said the gifts appear to be a clear violation of state law.
The law limits to $4,000 gifts by a company or individual to a single candidate, a provision with which Frazier's firm has generally complied. But the law also caps at $10,000 contributions to all candidates in a four-year election cycle.
An additional $5,000 in contributions by another partnership controlled by Frazier, Powhatan Associates Development LLC, appear to be legal, according to Ross Goldstein of the election board.
Though the two entities share the same address, they are legally separate and can each contribute up to the $10,000 limit - a loophole sophisticated political players have used liberally.
By exceeding the $10,000 limit, Frazier's firm joins dozens of other companies that have inadvertently or intentionally flouted election law, which is intended to limit the financial influence a single entity can have on state politics.
While violations of the election law theoretically are subject to a year in jail and a $25,000 fine, excess contributions have seldom resulted in prosecutions.
Typically, the state prosecutor's office gives over-generous donors the opportunity to request refunds to bring themselves under the limit.
Difficult to prove intent
In effect, a giver gets a free pass on the first violation because of the difficulty of proving criminal intent, said Thomas M. McDonough, assistant state prosecutor.
The $10,000 limit is hardly an obscure provision of state law.
Violations of the provision have been the subject of front-page articles in The Sun - the most recent in December. Frazier said he doesn't read The Sun.
James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said big political spenders are unlikely to comply with the law until they see some prosecutions.
"We're beyond the point where you can claim ignorance, and these are just crimes," he said.
A spokeswoman for Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. put some distance between the candidate and Frazier.
"We were not aware and certainly do not condone any illegal activities, and if to comply with state election law moneys need to be returned, they will be," said spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver.
A variety of candidates
Powhatan Development's contributions went to a wide variety of candidates, including $1,500 to Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend last year before Frazier changed his allegiance in the governor's race. As of late last month, the firm had contributed $3,000 to Ehrlich this year.
The developer's biggest beneficiary is Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens. Frazier gave her re-election campaign $4,250 under the name of Powhatan Development and $4,000 as Powhatan Associates.
Owens spokesman Bob DiPietro said the campaign returned $250 of the first donation to bring it within the $4,000 limit.
Other Powhatan contributions went to Republican Party committees - despite Frazier's self-identification as a Democrat. He also donated to various candidates of both parties in statewide, legislative and local races.
Frazier said that his company has no government contracts and that the contributions are a reflection of his active interest in politics.