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O’Malley donor gains highway access

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2008

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith this year secured more than $28 million to build a highway interchange leading to a road serving a commercial property owned by one of their largest campaign donors.

Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Smith, close political allies, committed the money a few months ago to build the interchange from Interstate 795 to a road running past the $79 million business development owned by Edward St. John.

Mr. St. John was recently fined $55,000 by the state prosecutors office for donating more than $25,000 through his company's vice presidents to Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Smith during the last election. The vice presidents were reimbursed for their contributions through their year-end bonuses.

Individuals are barred from donating more than $4,000 to a candidate and more than $10,000 overall during an election cycle, though corporations and large donors frequently skirt the law by making donations through limited liability corporations (LLCs) registered in their name or bundling donations from family members and co-workers.

Mr. St. John used both methods to violate the spirit of campaign finance restrictions, prosecutors said late last week.

The O'Malley administration touted the new interchange in a March statement.

"Today, we are investing in a core transportation project that will help meet the needs of one of Baltimore County's key growth areas," Mr. O'Malley said in the statement. "This new interchange project is a perfect example of how Maryland benefits when local and state government work together as partners."

Mr. O'Malley added the $28 million highway project to the state's long-term transportation plan this year.

The interchange would lead almost directly to the Dolfield Business Park, a 36-acre center that the St. John Properties began developing in 2005. The $79 million development is less than one-tenth of a mile from I-795, at the intersection of Red Run and Dolfield boulevards near Owings Mills.

An O'Malley spokesman said there was no quid pro quo in the decision to build the interchange.

"There's never any promise of policy, never any promise of state business connected to campaign donations," said Shaun Adamec. "Contributions [are] completely independent of what the governor does in his role as governor."

The project had been a county priority since 1999, before Mr. Smith became county executive, a Smith spokeswoman added.

A St. John's Properties spokesman did not return calls to his work phone and cell phone Wednesday. But Mr. St. John's company, St. John Properties, boasted about the new highway interchange in a company newsletter in April.

"Dolfield Business Park will soon be served by a new Dolfield exchange on I-795 and improvements to Dolfield Blvd. and its bridge will soon be complete," the company newsletter reads. "Stay ahead of the market by visiting today and checking out these great properties."

The newsletter featured a photo of Mr. O'Malley, Mr. Smith and Mr. St. John with state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari.

The state prosecutor's office fined Mr. St. John last week after detailing more than $300,000 in political contributions that the developer made to candidates in both parties during the 2006 election cycle through company vice presidents and LLCs registered solely in his name.

The Baltimore developer - similar to many other developers - spread money across party lines, donating more than $145,000 to Maryland Republicans during the last election via the party's joint state account and its federal account.

Public campaign funding advocates said it's nearly impossible to nail down a tit-for-tat relationship between campaign donors and political favors, though it can be equally as tough to dispel appearances of impropriety.

"Until we have public funding these questions can still come up," said Ryan O'Donnell, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. "If you use public funding of campaigns, there's never any question whether the money funding the campaign is clean and unfettered."

The investigation of Mr. St. John was sparked by a 2006 Common Cause report detailing more than $6 million in contributions made through loopholes in the state's campaign finance law.

Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Smith declined to return the donations from St. John Properties.

"It would be hard to justify that sort of action," Mr. Adamec said Wednesday.

Mr. O'Malley last year returned more than $100,000 from a movie producer after the filmmaker was fined $119,000 by state prosecutors for violating campaign finance laws.