Union money overwhelms election, draws complaints

The elections board in Gaithersburg (MD) is being called to service like never before in the wake of this year’s campaign season, which witnessed unprecedented involvement in a city election by a coalition of political action committees.

Four complaints about campaign spending and reporting have been filed with the Board of Supervisors of Elections since Thursday, and Assistant City Manager Fred Felton said he expects the board will be reviewing reporting requirements in the weeks to come.

Largely at issue is the spending of the coalition One Gaithersburg, supported by several labor unions, immigrant groups and other political action committees, on behalf of three candidates — Ryan Spiegel, Carlos Solis and Ahmed Ali. Only Spiegel won a seat in Tuesday’s race.

This year’s election marks the first time a PAC that has not previously been involved in city business has played a role in a Gaithersburg election, Felton said. Under city law, an individual or group can spend up to $500 on behalf of a single candidate.

One Gaithersburg initially listed four supporting groups on its Web site and literature – the Service Employees International Union Local 500, the Montgomery County Government Employees Organization (an affiliate of the UFCW and AFL-CIO), the Coalition of Asian-Pacific Americans Club and Progressive Maryland – representing a total of $6,000 that could be spent.

In financial accounting filed on behalf of One Gaithersburg Tuesday afternoon, seven supporting groups are listed and the commensurate $10,500 in allowed spending is reported.

Spending complaints

Three city residents skeptical of the coalition’s activity filed complaints against One Gaithersburg with the election board last week citing a lack of financial reporting. But Gaithersburg has no reporting requirements for political action committees, Felton said.

Essentially, PAC spending operates on an honor system in Gaithersburg.

‘‘That’s one of the problems with our code,” Felton said. ‘‘While there’s a limitation on what the organizations can spend, there are no reporting requirements.”

Maryland election law does not regulate municipal elections, except in Baltimore City.

The financial accounting of One Gaithersburg provided Tuesday by Solis’ campaign manager was made voluntarily in response to a request from Felton for the group to address the complaint allegations.

The complainants — Olde Towne residents Michael Stumborg and Edward Richley and Kentlands resident Richard Arkin — allege One Gaithersburg was spending more than the $500 per candidate allowed. They also complained that candidates endorsed by the group have not listed the coalition’s contributions on their own financial disclosures.

Disclosures filed by Spiegel, Solis and Ahmed Ali on Thursday do not list any funds received from One Gaithersburg.

The fourth complaint was filed by Olde Towne resident David Savage against the Campaign for Ryan Spiegel. He questions whether the candidate’s costs for brochures and mailings have exceeded what Spiegel disclosed in his latest financial reporting.

‘‘If anyone has a complaint with One Gaithersburg, they should address it with the organization,” Jason Waskey, Spiegel’s volunteer campaign manager, said Monday. ‘‘Ryan has completely followed all the City of Gaithersburg’s campaign finance laws.”

City code defines a political action committee as ‘‘any combination of two or more persons formed in any manner, which has a principal purpose to assist in the promotion of the success or defeat of any candidate or proposition submitted to a vote of any election.” It also imposes $1,000 sanctions on any individual or group that exceeds a $500 contribution limit per candidate.

‘‘I can tell you that we are following the letter of the law,” SEIU Local 500’s Political Director Jaclyn Richter said Monday. And as for the candidates not reporting the in-kind donations of One Gaithersburg groups, she said SEIU Local 500 had not yet disclosed its spending to the candidates, so the candidates would not yet be required by law to report the funds.

The financial accounting made public Tuesday showed $1,500 — or $500 each for three candidates — was spent by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 27 Political Action Committee; the UFCW Local 400 ABC Political Action Committee, the Mid-Atlantic Political Action Committee, the SEIU Local 500 PAC and the SEIU Maryland⁄District of Columbia State Council PAC, in addition to the Montgomery County Government Employee Organization UFCW Local 1994 Active Ballot and Progressive Maryland. Each had a treasurer or president listed.

The Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans Club, listed among the original four One Gaithersburg groups, is not mentioned.

The accounting was made in a letter to Felton from Cezar B. Lopez, Solis’ friend and campaign manager. He said One Gaithersburg is not officially a PAC, noting the group has no treasurer or bank account.

‘‘One Gaithersburg is a coalition that is made up of several groups, businesses, individuals and hundreds of residents of the City of Gaithersburg,” Lopez wrote. ‘‘One Gaithersburg has no financial resources to make donations and has not made any expenditures on behalf of a candidate.

He said that groups and individuals supporting One Gaithersburg had communicated with the city manager’s office and understood the $500 limit per candidate.

Committee participation

There is also some question as to the legitimacy of having a PAC participate in a municipal election.

State law states that ‘‘a campaign finance entity established under Maryland law may not be used to support a municipal candidate.”

Some, like Game Preserve Road resident Daniel Reeder who is supporting the Cathy Drzyzgula and Jud Ashman campaigns and has been a campaign manager in past City Council elections, interpret the statute to mean that PACs may not participate in municipal elections, except in the City of Baltimore.

The state law advises contacting the municipality for applicable reporting and registration requirements, and in Gaithersburg, there are none.

The City of Rockville reports one political action group called Real Rockville, which identifies itself on an online blog as ‘‘an organization of concerned citizens” alarmed about the growth rate and density of the city.

‘‘We don’t call them PACs, We call them campaign committees, for legal purposes,” said Claire Funkhouser, Rockville’s city clerk. Her office coordinates elections with the city’s Board of Supervisors of Elections.

‘‘We treat them just like a candidate,” she said. ‘‘They have to file and they have to adhere to the same filing requirements for identifying their contributions and expenditures just like a candidate does.”

Still, some in Gaithersburg believe something just doesn’t seem right with the situation there.

‘‘We may find at the end of the day that these candidates obeyed the letter of the law, but they have clearly, clearly violated the spirit of the law,” Stumborg said Sunday. ‘‘At the end of the day, any candidate is allowed to bring in outside money, but there needs to be some transparency so that people know it is happening.”

Stumborg and his wife Lauren and 10 friends blanketed the city this weekend with notices asking residents to vote only for candidates not affiliated with One Gaithersburg.

And also over the weekend, city staff removed roughly 100 signs — endorsing the three One Gaithersburg candidates — illegally placed along roadways, Felton said.

Some were removed by city staff only to reappear the next day, he said.


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