- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Since funding a lavish half-million-dollar party to celebrate the election of Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III about 18 months ago, officials at the Bowie-based Path to Greatness have continued to raise thousands of dollars from donors while counting Mr. Baker’s wife as a trustee, an arrangement that critics say opens up another avenue for special interests to curry favor with his administration.

Under Internal Revenue Service rules, such nonprofit organizations are not required to make public the names of donors, though officials did so in response to a request by The Washington Times. The list reveals dozens of contributors, including several with close ties to the Prince George’s government.

Campaign finance specialists say that while legal, contributions to Path to Greatness could give special interests a way to win favor with Mr. Baker by donating in excess of what they could give publicly to his campaign. As a candidate, Mr. Baker vowed to tackle the “pay to play” culture that sent his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson, to federal prison on conviction of graft.

“It very clearly can become a means for those who want to curry favor with an elected official to provide funding, which can sometimes further the political ambitions of the politician or help take care of their family and friends,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center.

Under federal law, lobbying reforms created in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal mandate disclosure of federal lobbyist donations to charities tied to a lawmaker. But there is no such requirement under Maryland election law, leaving it up to nonprofit groups to police themselves and decide how much, if any, information about funding sources to make public. Path to Greatness officials have been transparent, providing significant IRS documentation and donor lists in response to requests from The Times.

Among all of the records, however, perhaps the clearest connection between Path to Greatness and Mr. Baker’s administration is plainly on the group’s website, which lists Mr. Baker’s wife, Christa Beverly, as a member of the board of trustees and co-founder of Path to Greatness. The website also includes a more than 600-word biography of Mr. Baker’s wife, at one point referring to her as “the wife and best-friend of Prince George’s County’s new County Executive.”

Still, through a spokesman, Mr. Baker said he has no “insight or direct connection” to the organization: “Mr. Baker is not directly involved with the Path to Greatness organization,” Prince George’s spokesman Barry Hudson wrote in an email to The Times. “His wife is a member of the board of directors, but Mr. Baker does not have any involvement in how and where donations come from. His daughter is listed on the site as an intern (non-paid), however, she accepted another internship and never worked as an intern at the Path to Greatness.”

Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a watchdog group, isn’t convinced: “From all indications, this organization is very closely connected to County Executive Baker; in fact, it’s hard to imagine a less-connected group,” he said.

The organization is run from a Bowie property owned by Michelle Haywood and her husband, Chris Lawson, both of whom have close political ties to Mr. Baker. Mr. Lawson led Mr. Baker’s 2006 campaign, and Path to Greatness is registered under Mr. Lawson’s name. Ms. Haywood is executive director of Path to Greatness.

Ms. Haywood said in an interview that Prince George’s Path to Greatness is a so-called 501(c)(4) tax-exempt nonprofit organization. Such groups cannot be set up to help win an election for a politician but can cover inaugural expenses. Separately, she filed paperwork with the IRS to run a separate 501(c)(3) charitable organization called Path to Greatness, which would allow donors to take tax deductions for contributions made for charitable purposes. That application is pending.

She described Mr. Baker’s wife as a friend who always has been interested in helping children in poverty. Ms. Haywood said neither Mr. Baker’s wife nor she receives compensation. In addition, in a message posted on the group’s website, Ms. Haywood wrote that the group aims to “support and seek to build organizations dedicated to education, youth and health and safety.”

Appointees

A few months into his first term, Mr. Baker announced two new appointees to the board of commissioners overseeing the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

“Christopher Lawson and Melanie Hartwig-Davis are incredible and experienced leaders who will serve the citizens well as representatives to the WSSC board,” Mr. Baker said at the time.

Ms. Hartwig-Davis’ name also appears on the list of donors provided by the group. Mr. Baker said neither appointment had anything to do with support provided by Mr. Lawson or by Ms. Hartwig-Davis to the organization. Ms. Haywood agreed, saying she never discussed the donations with Mr. Baker or his wife.

Those aren’t the only ties between the Prince George’s government and the nonprofit group. Other supporters include Washington Gas Light Co., which is entangled in litigation with the Prince George’s government, and Monty Cooper, appointed by Mr. Baker to a board overseeing the county’s housing and community development authority. Sam Epps, another donor, was appointed by Mr. Baker to the board of trustees for the county’s library system.

In an email, Ms. Haywood said most of the donors to a holiday mixer and trustees dinner held in the months after Mr. Baker took office gave small contributions, ranging from $50 to $250, but a firm run by Ms. Hartwig-Davis gave $1,000. Another company, Grant Capital Management, separately provided $50,000.

Path to Greatness solicits donations online through PayPal. Referring to a holiday mixer in December, the group posted information online saying tickets ranged from $500 for Silver Path sponsors to $1,000 for Gold Path sponsors and $2,500 for Platinum Path sponsorship.

In addition, Mr. Baker is pictured prominently in numerous event photos posted throughout the group’s website, including scenes from his swearing-in ceremony and inaugural ball. From the trustees dinner last year alone, Mr. Baker is pictured in nearly a dozen photos.

Political ties

Prince George’s Path to Greatness was formed in the fall of 2010, weeks after Mr. Baker won election. Mr. Lawson was listed as the incorporator and Mrs. Haywood as registered agent, according to Maryland state business filings. In a separate set of filings, an entity called Path to Greatness that was formed in Maryland in December lists Betsy Calloway as incorporator and Mrs. Haywood as registered agent. Both entities list the Bowie property of Mr. Lawson and Ms. Haywood.

Ms. Haywood said that if the IRS approves the application for a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, she would lean toward shutting down the 501(c)(4) group that paid for Mr. Baker’s inaugural ball.

Prince George’s Path to Greatness, the earlier-formed 501(c)(4) group that covered the inaugural ball expenses at a gala at the National Harbor, reported total revenue in 2010 of $533,710, with expenses of $508,237. Those expenses included a quarter of a million dollars in rent and facility costs and $75,000 for entertainment.

Signing off on the IRA statement was Michael Cobb, a partner at the D.C.-based accounting firm Thompson Cobb Bazilio & Associates, which was founded by longtime D.C. fundraiser Jeffrey E. Thompson. Mr. Thompson stepped down from the firm after a federal raid of his office and home as part of campaign finance investigation into D.C. political campaigns. Two companies owned by Mr. Thompson gave checks of $4,000 each to Mr. Baker’s campaign in September 2010, records show.

No strangers to political giving, Ms. Haywood, Mr. Lawson and his company, Insuraty, combined have given more than $100,000 to D.C., federal and Maryland campaigns over the years. Many of their contributions came the same day, to the same politician and in the same amount as donations from Mr. Thompson, his businesses or associates.

Two prominent Maryland politicians — Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown — moved in recent weeks to rid their campaigns of money tied to Mr. Thompson, though neither parted with funds from Mr. Lawson, Ms. Haywood or Insuraty.

Insuraty has worked for two of Mr. Thompson’s companies over the years, but Ms. Haywood said all of the couple’s donations were legal and the accounting firm’s work for Path to Greatness had nothing to do with any political ties.

“My husband and I gave out of support for Mr. Thompson’s passion for political fundraising,” she wrote in an email. “We never felt our business relationship was in jeopardy based on whether we gave contributions or not. From my experience, Mr. Thompson was doing what he loved to do and folks were a part of it because, in essence, they wanted to be.”

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