The Truth About Campaign Money in Rockville Elections
Powell: Gajewski took developer dollars.
Rockville voters were very disappointed by Councilman Piotr Gajewski’s claim that he had not taken any developer money thus far in his 2011 campaign, when asked this question at Tuesday night’s King Farm candidate forum. The fact is, he has taken at least $1,950.00 of developer and developer attorney money so far, according to his campaign finance report, for the period ending Sept. 30.
Thus far, Gajewski’s developer-related money consists of the following:
Aris Mardirossian ($1,000 to Gajewski’s campaign to date) is one of the most noteworthy developers in Montgomery County. According to the Washington Post, in the late 1980s he was charged with violating Maryland election law. A Gazette executive was also charged in the same scandal and fined, the Post reported. It seems as though the Gazette may be repeating history with its apparently biased support of Gajewski. The least The Gazette could do is recuse itself in endorsing any Rockville mayoral candidate in the 2011 election.
During a typical election cycle (state, county, etc.), Mardirossian gives tens of thousands of dollars to local politicians directly and via his many companies and LLCs. All of this is a matter of public record and can be found at the Maryland State Board of Elections website. Based on many favorable actions taken by various legislative bodies over the years, it appears that Mardirossian gets what he wants when it comes to his development projects. Mardirossian has real estate interests throughout the county. He is one of the principals in the large scale “Crown Farm” development project (annexed by the City of Gaithersburg).
In April, Mardirossian gave Gajewski the maximum $1,000 under Rockville election code. Due to the fact that the October campaign finance report (which covers the bulk of a candidate’s contributions prior to the election) will not be submitted to the City until Nov. 3 (a scheduling change that Gajewski voted for in March 2009 and Marcuccio voted against), print news organizations will not be able to report on campaign finance sources until after the election. This provides the opportunity that a special interest, such as a developer, could contribute to a Rockville candidate’s campaign many times the maximum using affiliated companies and LLCs (“paper” corporations), effectively bypassing Rockville’s $1,000 contribution limit to any one candidate.
At the state level, this is known as the “LLC loophole.” In other words, one or a handful of special interest contributors could have a significant impact on a Rockville election, by giving many thousands of dollars to the candidate of their choice and the voters won’t know about it until after the election is over.
Rockville voters saw this in the 2009, when after the election then-candidate Susan Hoffmann revealed that 47 percent of her campaign funds came from development-related sources. Some of those interests included Rockville Town Center developers. It's not a problem that Gajewski seems to care about, given that he proudly announced, at the Tuesday night forum, that Susan Hoffmann has endorsed him.
Bill Kominers ($250 to Gajewski’s campaign to date) is a land use/zoning attorney, who, until recently was with the law firm of Holland and Knight. He is now with Lerch, Early & Brewer, and has argued on behalf of many Rockville developers before the Rockville City Council.
Robert Harris ($500 to Gajewski’s campaign to date) also is a land use/zoning attorney with Lerch, Early & Brewer (previously with Holland and Knight) who has many developer clients who do business in Rockville. One such client is Silverwood Investments, the Virginia developer wishing to build a five-story, 417-unit, apartment building next to a dump. Gajewski championed and voted for the annexation, which gives Silverwood the go-ahead to proceed with a development that few in Rockville or Montgomery County wanted, including County Executive Ike Leggett.
Patricia Harris ($200 to Gajewski’s campaign to date) also is a land use/zoning attorney with Lerch, Early & Brewer. Ms. Harris, previously with Holland & Knight, also represents Silverwood Investments. The least Mr. Gajewski could have done is recuse himself from the annexation vote or disclosed that he had received these funds—$950.00 thus far—from attorneys working for the law firm currently representing Silverwood.
As far as not knowing that he received money from developers, in Gajewski’s own words, “it stretches all credulity” that Gajewski wouldn’t have known that he received at least $1,950 from developers and their attorneys thus far.
Mardirossian is an extremely well-established developer and gave Gajewski one of two $1,000 donations, the maximum under Rockville law. Bill Kominers, the land use/zoning attorney, has come before the Rockville City Council and Gajewski numerous times, pushing developer agendas. Gajewski’s receipt of funds from Robert Harris and Patricia Harris gives every appearance of potential impropriety. How could Gajewski not know who these people are?
There may be significant amounts of development-related dollars in Gajewski’s next campaign finance filing, but due to changes to Rockville’s election code that Gajewski himself voted for, the citizens of Rockville won’t see this until it’s too late.
Why should we care? Under the law, a developer and its advocates are allowed to give money to the candidates of their choice. There’s nothing wrong with that. To some this is not an issue. For others, there may be the concern for the appearance of potential impropriety, i.e. the influence of campaign money on elected officials when making land use and zoning decisions that impact our quality-of-life for decades.
But none of that is the issue here. What’s at issue is the citizens’ right to know. Where do candidates get their campaign funds? It’s the reason we have election laws, which include the filing of campaign finance reports.
The least a candidate could do is be forthright when asked about the sources of their funds. Sadly, Rockville may be the only jurisdiction in Maryland where it is impossible for voters to find campaign finance information in print media for the bulk of the election prior to casting their votes. Thank goodness for Patch. Its electronic format will allow voters to get this vital information over the weekend before Election Day, Nov. 8 to help them make the right decision.
The author is the former executive director of the now-defunct political action committee Neighbors for a Better Montgomery. He ran for mayor in 2007.