Baltimore’s former mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, has agreed to pay her campaign committee $5,418 after state election officials faulted her for using political donations for “non-electoral purposes.”
Rawlings-Blake said she will reimburse the money by the end of this year, while insisting in a letter to the Maryland Board of Elections that “every dollar spent . . . was an investment in the myriad people who have helped and will help me manifest my commitment to public service.”
“We’ll ask for verification of the payment,” Jared DeMarinis, campaign finance director of the Elections Board, told The Brew on Friday before the agency formally terminates its probe of her campaign finances.
DeMarinis’ office began investigating Rawlings-Blake after this website detailed her lavish spend-down of campaign funds as a lame-duck politician.
In September 2015, when she announced she would not seek re-election as mayor, her “Rawlings-Blake For Baltimore” committee had $425,000 in cash.
On January 11, 2017, the committee’s last reporting date, cash on hand was $177,947 – or nearly $250,000 less.
Where Did the Money Go?
Some of the funds were transferred to other politicians (Catherine Pugh’s political committee, for example, picked up $6,000).
Just a trickle went to charity, even though the mayor told supporters last November that she planned to donate a portion of her funds to YouthWorks, a summer employment program for teenagers.
More than $70,000 in campaign cash went to her fundraiser, Stephanie Binetti, who raised no funds during this period, but worked closely with the mayor in her leadership positions at the Democratic National Committee and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Another $75,000 went for parties, catered sports events, gifts, and travel and hotel rooms for staff at last year’s Democratic National Convention.
The payments include $195.62 to her brother, Wendell Rawlings, for “field expenses” at the Phaze 10 nightclub and $220 to Kathe Hammond, a city employee, for food and beverages at the 2016 opening game of the Orioles at Camden Yards.
But the biggest single expense footed by the committee was a $54,000 farewell party at Bar Vasquez, whose guests consisted of a “who’s who” of local developers, lobbyists, contractors and a smattering of city officials.
Rawlings-Blake successfully persuaded the Elections Board that the catered food, open bar, entertainers and official photographer at the November 11, 2016 event were necessary for “donor cultivation” and to thank campaign staff, which are legitimate expenses under Maryland’s campaign finance law.
Wine as a Field Expense
A number of other expenses cited by The Brew, however, were ruled improper uses of campaign funds.
The former mayor, for example, must personally reimburse $4,804 that her committee spent to rent her a private suite at M&T Bank Stadium during 2015 Ravens games.
PRIOR BREW STORIES:
• Rawlings-Blake spent $54,000 on farewell party (2/1/17)
Additionally, she must pay back $614 for gifts and wine distributed to various people when Rawlings-Blake was president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
In her campaign reports, the gift and wine purchases were described as “field” and “meeting” expenses.
The reports were prepared by treasurer Charles G. “Chuck” Tildon, vice president of the United Way of Central Maryland, and approved by Lisa F. Rawlings, the ex-mayor’s older sister and campaign chairman.
Maryland election law is notoriously lax in regulating how elected officials use campaign funds after they have finished their terms in office.
A former official is allowed to keep his or her political committee open for eight years after leaving elective office. The person can spend campaign funds freely during those eight years so long as the spending can be justified as serving “an electoral purpose,” such as maintaining “goodwill” with existing or future donors.
Common Cause Maryland has faulted these allowances as overly broad and subject to abuse.
“The state’s finding regarding Rawlings-Blake’s committee is discouraging, but not surprising,” Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of the citizens group, said in an interview on Friday.
“Simply put, this is a slap on the wrist for lots of questionable spending by this elected official. It speaks to a chronic weakness in Maryland’s campaign finance laws regarding permissible campaign expenses,” Bevan-Dangel said.
“Thank You” Parties
According to DeMarinis, the catered event at Bar Vasquez was a thank-you party for donors and other supporters thrown by an outgoing elected official.
In a June 5 letter to the Elections Board, Rawlings-Blake justified the $54,000 price tag by arguing that it “not only thanked attendees for past support, but also laid the groundwork for support of future political endeavors.”
After announcing her lame-duck status, Rawlings-Blake hosted a half dozen other donor parties with campaign funds, not counting the nearly $3,000 in food and liquor that flowed at the ex-mayor’s suite during Ravens games.
Similarly, the $72,000 paid to Binetti Political Strategies after September 2015 was an acceptable use of campaign funds because “you don’t want to have a reputation for not paying bills,” DeMarinis said.
He indicated that the Binetti payments covered prior campaign work. In its letter to the Elections Board, however, the Rawlings-Blake committee argued that Binetti was paid to “maintain an effective political organization” for possible future political runs.
“But for the fact that Stephanie Rawlings-Blake remains a candidate, these expenses would not be incurred,” the response letter to the Elections Board stated.
“Simply put, this is a slap on the wrist for lots of questionable spending by this elected official.” – Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.
“What politician isn’t going to say they’ll run again?” Bevan-Dangel asked, especially when state law gives them nearly a decade to make up their mind.
“Some former legislators become lobbyists while they still have open campaign accounts,” the Common Cause director continued. “Others sit on these piles of money and use them as a slush fund.
“It all raises the specter that former elected officials can use their accounts to have a better connection to current elected officials than your average citizen can ever hope to have.”
Reversal of Fortune
The broader context of Rawlings-Blake’s spending was the discouraging turn that her political career took two years ago.
In the first months of 2015, she was on the fast track to win re-election as mayor – and was gaining national exposure as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and secretary of the Democratic National Committee.
Back then, she told reporters that she was thinking “long and hard” about running for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by Barbara Mikulski.
Then came April 27, 2015. The mayor was unavailable for hours as rioting spread across Baltimore in the wake of the funeral of Freddie Gray, whose police-in-custody death had sparked outrage in the black community.
Unable to reach the mayor, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan finally ordered the National Guard to re-establish order.
The mayor’s hopes for higher office were immediately dashed and, within months, so was her re-election campaign for mayor.
Colleen Martin-Lauer, who had raised Rawlings-Blake’s $400,000-plus campaign war chest, made it know that she had “fired” the mayor in the days after the riot.
Stephanie Binetti, a neophyte, took over the mayor’s fundraising apparatus that soon became notable for spending, rather than raising, funds.
Courting Donors in Philly
A year later, while still mayor, Rawlings-Blake spent campaign funds on staff costs at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
She gained brief media attention by presiding in place of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chairman, whose reputation was tarnished by leaked emails.
The Maryland Elections Board accepted Rawlings-Blake’s explanation that she used campaign funds while serving as the convention’s emcee to gain “access to existing and potential donors and supporters.”
Among the expenses allowed by the board was $1,381 paid to her campaign treasurer, Chuck Tildon, to stay at the Wyndham Hotel Philadelphia during the convention.
Four months later, Rawlings-Blake saw the promise of a position in the Hillary Clinton administration vanish with the election of Donald Trump to the White House.
The mayor left City Hall on December 6 and, soon thereafter, lost her bid for a second term as DNC secretary.
By then, her leadership position at the U.S. Conference of Mayor had expired.
Consultant and Rainmaker
Currently, she is the sole listed member of SRB & Associates, a government relations consulting firm that shares office space with Binetti Political Strategies at the historic Roland Park Shopping Center.
The 47-year-old maintains a lively twitter feed, @MayorSRB, that mixes sports and political affairs with denunciations of Trump and his followers (“What say you Black Republicans? Proud of your President today?” she tweeted after the white supremacist march in Charlottesville).
In July, it was announced that she would join Dentons as a senior advisor in its Local Government Solutions Practice in Washington.
Dentons bills itself as the largest law/lobbying firm in the world, and includes a lengthy roll call of out-of-office politicians, including former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
Rawlings-Blake’s role as senior advisor will be as a rainmaker, attracting clients to the firm, based on an on-line profile that touts her former government positions and contacts, and offers a triumphal assessment of her years as mayor:
- Skills and resources: More than 25 years’ experience as a public official, including serving as a City Council member, City Council president, mayor of Baltimore and attorney with the Public Defender’s Office. As president of US Conference of Mayors, Stephanie engaged, led and represented hundreds of mayors on such issues as sustainability, infrastructure and urban redevelopment. As DNC secretary since 2013, she communicates with hundreds of the organization’s members across the country (and throughout the world) on a regular basis and has developed knowledge of local government affairs needs.
- Relationships and contacts: As mayor of Baltimore and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Stephanie built strong relationships nationally and working relationships outside the country, including with mayors and other municipal officials in China, Japan, India, Qatar, France, Cuba and Israel in connection with cultural exchange trips, and collaborative leadership and business development initiatives.
- Neighborhood development: As mayor, Stephanie focused on building a diverse group of neighborhoods appealing to young professionals. As a result, Baltimore is recognized as one of the top cities nationwide to attract millennials.
- Economic development: To persuade a Fortune 500 company to expand its existing world headquarters in Port Covington, MD, a 266-acre waterfront development, Stephanie shepherded through one of the largest tax increment financing (TIF) deals in the nation.
Rawlings-Blake did not respond to a Brew request for comment about her agreement with the Elections Board and her new job at Dentons.
She also did not address the status of the donation she promised to YouthWorks.