Gajewski Cleared of One Campaign Finance Allegation
The city's elections board will continue to investigate a second allegation after Election Day, chairman says.
The city election’s board cleared Councilman Piotr Gajewski of one campaign finance violation allegation and its chairman said last week that it would not act on another allegation until after Tuesday’s election.
The board reviewed a complaint by Rockville resident Drew Powell and eight others that focused on two “in-kind” contributions of $600 each covering rent for Gajewski’s mayoral campaign headquarters at 718 Rockville Pike.
The complaint alleges that the contributions are from a single source and therefore violate the $1,000-per-donor contribution limit spelled out in the city’s election code. The contributions were listed in Gajewski’s Sept. 30 campaign fund report.
The city’s Board of Supervisors of Elections discussed the complaint at its Nov. 1 meeting. Board Chairman David Celeste said that while “a lot of information was alleged” in the complaint, the board chose to focus on two “legitimate allegations”:
1) That Gajewski’s campaign was paying below fair market value to rent the office space.
2) That in-kind contributions by Neil Marcus, toward the office rental, violate the contribution limit.
The board cleared Gajewski of the allegation that the rent was below fair market value.
Powell provided the board with a campaign fund report filed by the 2010 gubernatorial campaign of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., which leased the same office space in a former auto dealership site now being used by Gajewski.
The report showed that the Ehrlich campaign paid $3,000 for rent “and other office expenses.”
By comparison, the rent paid by Gajewski under a licensing agreement with MS Pike LLC, amounts to $2,500 a month.
While the rent seemed a bit low, Celeste said, “the data didn’t connect all the dots.”
Ultimately, there was not enough evidence to say whether the rent was fair market value, he said.
The licensing agreement carries fewer stipulations than a lease, allowing the campaign to use the space without requiring MS Pike LLC to make improvements to the property or perform maintenance.
Gajewski showed that the property was in poor condition, without a working bathroom and with falling ceiling tiles, Celeste said. Gajewski said his campaign had done a lot of work to make the headquarters inhabitable, Celeste said. The board has no resources to conduct a rental appraisal of Rockville Pike office space, he said.
“We only were able to deal with what was put on the table in front of us,” Celeste said.
Reached Friday, Powell said he was not satisfied with the board’s decision to dismiss the allegation.
“I’m making it my life’s work to get them to reopen that issue,” he said.
Still outstanding are questions about the nature of the licensing agreement that Gajewski has for the office space.
“We want the question answered so we can confirm he’s in compliance, that it was an appropriate in-kind contribution,” Celeste said.
The city code has no definition of exactly what constitutes an in-kind contribution, Celeste said. Using information provided by Powell, the board decided to adopt the state’s definition of in-kind contributions. The state defines an in-kind contribution could as “(1) a contribution given to a political committee in non-monetary form (e.g. services or property); or (2) a coordinated expenditure made on behalf of the candidate where the candidate knows of and consents to the expenditures.”
It is “very clear” that MS Pike LLC, and not Marcus, is the owner of the office, Celeste said. Therefore, Marcus could not make an in-kind contribution of the property, Celeste said.
Marcus could have made an in-kind contribution toward the rent of the property, Celeste said.
“Mr. Gajewski alluded to the possibility that Mr. Marcus paid some money out of his pocket,” Celeste said.
If Marcus’s total contributions—including the value of the in-kind contributions—do not exceed $1,000, they would be permissible under city election law. The board gave Gajewski until Wednesday to provide information about the arrangement brokered with Marcus.
“I’m working on it,” Gajewski said on Monday. Gajewski said he had not been able to reach Marcus by telephone.
“Obviously his statement is the only thing that can clear it up,” Gajewski said.
“I expect they’ll clear me of the other allegations when they get more information,” he said.
While the board’s top priority this week will be Tuesday’s election, the board will continue to investigate the allegations, Celeste said.
“We have no intention of sweeping this under the rug,” he said.