Ross pushes to close developers' campaign-funding loophole
Proposal makes it more difficult to get around law that prevents direct contributions to council members
Del. Justin Ross (D-Dist. 22) of Hyattsville has proposed closing a loophole that allows Prince George's County leaders to receive donations from developers through shared accounts a tactic used to circumvent a law preventing them from accepting direct contributions from builders with projects under consideration.
The 1993 state law was designed to prevent the county executive and council from voting on any project if they received contributions from any lawyer, engineer or company associated with the pending development.
However, many county leaders have instead received developer donations through slate accounts shared with General Assembly candidates, allowing them to still vote on the builders' projects while raising money for campaigns.
"The County Council [and executive] should not be able to receive contributions while projects are in front of them," Ross said. "It's a reasonable bill that will give Prince Georgians more faith in their government."
Though Ross began drafting the bill more than two months ago, it is attracting new attention since the Nov. 12 arrest of County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his wife, Councilwoman-elect Leslie E. Johnson (D-Dist. 6) of Mitchellville for allegedly destroying a $100,000 check from a developer linked to an FBI investigation into bribery.
"There's a great reason for it, when you look at what has happened here," Ross said, referring to his bill. "My hope is that Prince George's County will lead the way on a number of fronts, including ethics reform."
Under Ross' proposal, developers would need to provide a detailed list of their contributions to slates and individual campaigns when they request a land-use decision from the council. If council members have any affiliation with a slate that took developer money, they would need to recuse themselves.
Closing the loophole was a campaign promise by County Executive-elect Rushern L. Baker III (D) who pledged in the spring to reform county ethics practices.
Wayne K. Curry, chairman of Baker's transition team and a former county executive, declined to comment about Ross' bill.
Members of the Prince George's County House Delegation are scheduled to hold a public hearing on the bill at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Rennie Forum at Prince George's County Community College in Largo.
The uncertainty of whether developers are gaining favors through slate donations makes residents distrust politicians, said Brandywine resident Kamita Gray.
"The issue becomes that if you give to a candidate, you expect things," she said.
State Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Dist. 24) of Capitol Heights attempted last year to rescind the law banning direct contributions to council members, claiming the law discriminated against lawmakers since Prince George's is the only county in the state where development donations to council members are restricted. Exum's measure attracted no support amid criticism from state watchdog groups and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach, who sponsored the original ban.
Miller and Exum did not return calls for comment.