Monday, July 24, 2006

Josh Rales, a Democratic candidate for Maryland’s U.S. Senate seat, paid a drug-treatment center in Baltimore to drive its recovering addicts to last week’s debate in College Park, where they held signs supporting his campaign.

About 20 patients from the I Can’t, We Can (ICWC) drug-treatment and counseling center in northwest Baltimore attended the debate, said Adrian Harpool, president of the 21st Century Group, a Baltimore public-relations firm hired by the Rales campaign to recruit volunteers.

“It’s not something that happens on a regular basis,” Mr. Harpool said, adding that the recovering addicts were unpaid volunteers who were to help post signs but ended up holding the placards. “It was a real error in judgment on my part.”

The ICWC patients told The Washington Times that they pay about $350 a month to undergo treatment at the center and that some have criminal records, including felony convictions.

Using recovering addicts as campaign supporters does not appear to be illegal, said a spokeswoman for the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Kelly Huff said campaigns can use their money for “pretty much any lawful purpose as long as it relates to the campaign.”

Still, Derek Walker, executive director for the Maryland Democratic Party, said the Rales campaign’s volunteer-recruiting method was unusual.

“I have not heard of it being done,” Mr. Walker said. “Certainly, you get supporters to events in any way you can.”

Mr. Rales, a Bethesda real estate investor and political newcomer, has spent $2 million this month on TV ads and could spend up to $5 million of his own money running for the Senate.

After last week’s debate at the University of Maryland, Mr. Rales said he was “not familiar” with the treatment center but that he had no problem with recovering drug addicts holding the signs.

“If I can help people who have some drug issues … participate in the democratic process, I think that’s great,” he said.

Rales campaign manager Robin Rorapaugh later said via e-mail that the recovering addicts “were recruited by one of the campaign’s contractors without the knowledge of the campaign.”

ICWC founder Israel Cason, a former heroin addict who said he became drug-free in the mid-1990s, said Mr. Harpool paid the center only to rent its two vans.

“They used our transportation service,” he said. “We rent vans. They rented the vans from us.”

Before the debate, the ICWC volunteers wore white-and-blue “Rales for Senate” T-shirts and held up signs outside the university’s student union building.

Mr. Harpool would not say how much he paid to rent the vans.

“It was a contribution from my company to his organization. It wasn’t anything extraordinary. I’m just uncomfortable talking about dollar figures,” Mr. Harpool said.

The FEC’s Miss Huff said the Rales deal appears legal “as long as they paid the proper value for the use of the vans.”

Mr. Rales’ opponents for the Democratic nomination include Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 10-term congressman; former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman; A. Robert Kaufman, a Baltimore socialist; Thomas McCaskill, a research physicist from Fort Washington; and Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University.

The six men, who participated in last week’s debate, are vying to replace Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat who is retiring.

The primary is Sept. 12.

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