Abramoff money may trip Duncan

Gubernatorial hopeful denies any quid pro quo and returns the donation

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Reports that Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan received campaign contributions from disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff is viewed as a setback for his gubernatorial campaign and intensifies allegations that he is too cozy with special interests, political analysts say.

In recent weeks, Duncan (D) has been hit by rival Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley as a developer’s lackey with a failed record of curbing sprawl and relieving traffic congestion.

That line of attack intensified after the Duncan campaign announced late Thursday that it would return $20,000 in contributions from companies based in U.S. possessions in the Pacific Ocean that were connected to Abramoff. The Duncan campaign denied any link between the campaign contributions and the transfer seven years ago of a closed middle school to a private school supported by Abramoff.

The O’Malley campaign seized on the politics.

‘‘These are troubling revelations and they raise serious questions,” said Hari Sevugan, an O’Malley campaign spokesman. ‘‘We look forward to the facts emerging in the coming days so that more light can be shed on what exactly happened between Doug Duncan’s campaign and Jack Abramoff.”

Abramoff pleaded guilty to federal charges in separate trials in January. One involved ripping off American Indian tribes, and the other involved fraud in the purchase of casino boats.

His convictions prompted several politicians — including President Bush, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) of Baltimore — to return contributions from Abramoff, his wife and Abramoff-connected entities.

Abramoff now reportedly is helping investigators in a probe of public corruption.

Duncan received the contributions in 1999 about a month before the county transferred the Col. Joseph A. Belt Middle School in Wheaton to the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, according to The Washington Post.

‘‘There is absolutely no relation between the lease of the school and campaign contributions,” said Duncan campaign spokeswoman Jody H. Couser. ‘‘Closed abandoned schools are bad for neighborhoods, and it’s important to Doug that such schools be reused.”

Suspicion that Abramoff had ties to Duncan — even though the contributions came years ago — is the equivalent of political dynamite, according to analysts. Democrats are hoping to pin the Abramoff corruption scandal on the GOP in the coming elections.

‘‘No candidate in the country wants their name associated with Jack Abramoff,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks state and national campaigns.

Gonzales noted that Duncan, who has less money and is trailing O’Malley in recent polls, cannot afford to be sidetracked.

‘‘At this point in the race for Duncan, he can’t afford a lot of missteps,” Gonzales said. ‘‘Democrats up and down the ballot want to set up a corrupt Republican Party versus a clean Democratic Party. Some Democrats may be leery about nominating someone who could blur that contrast.”

Duncan supporters said the Abramoff imbroglio would pass and dismissed any allegations of wrongdoing.

Maryland House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve said there are thousands of politicians and charities that have been touched by Abramoff-related money.

The contributions to Duncan came long before allegations of Abramoff’s corruption surfaced, Barve said.

‘‘There old saying is where there’s smoke there’s fire, but in this case where there’s smoke there isn’t any fire,” said Barve (D-Dist. 17) of Gaithersburg.

Maryland Senate Finance Chairman Thomas McLain Middleton, also a Duncan supporter, acknowledged the ‘‘political liability” for Duncan because of the Abramoff money, but said he is doing the right thing by returning the money.

‘‘I know how these fund-raisers go,” said Middleton (D-Dist. 28) of Waldorf, noting the difficulty in tracking every campaign contribution in a race where candidates rake in millions.

In 1999, the Montgomery County school system, under Superintendent Paul L. Vance, did not want the Belt school, said Montgomery County Councilman Michael L. Subin (D-At large) of Gaithersburg. The community objected, sparking a fight between the community and the county government.

Subin said that when Jerry D. Weast took over the school system in August 1999, Weast thought the system needed another middle school in Wheaton and wanted Belt back. Yeshiva of Greater Washington ultimately leased another unused county school.

Subin said he has never received a contribution from Abramoff.

‘‘I will look again, as a belt and suspenders kind of thing,” Subin said, saying that out-of-county and out-of-state contributions receive extra scrutiny. ‘‘And I guaran-damn-tee that if it’s from out of the country, we’re asking, ‘Who is this?’”