A candidate’s plan to direct campaign donations to charities could test Montgomery County’s new public financing law.
At-large Democratic County Council candidate Brandy Brooks is running a fundraiser this month in which she’s promising to donate half of the campaign contributions she receives to help victims of natural disasters.
Initially, she pitched the campaign as straight donations to charities supporting flood relief efforts in Texas, Florida and South Asia, as well as landslide relief in Sierra Leone.
However, state law generally bans candidates from donating directly to charities with campaign funds. The local politics blog Seventh State pointed out this discrepancy between Brooks’ proposal and the law in a post Monday.
Brooks later changed her website page about the fundraiser to say half of the contributions she receives will instead go to “outreach and promotion with groups related to climate disaster relief” rather than directly to the charities.
In a phone interview Monday, Brooks said she made the change because she now plans to take half of the contributions she receives and spend it on tickets or paid promotional materials at events that benefit natural disaster victims.
“There are restrictions on ways a campaign can support charities,” Brooks, a Wheaton community activist, said. “I can’t do straight donations. However, there are situations where campaigns are permitted to support charitable causes—specifically in attending a ticketed event or buying sponsorships and advertisements.”
She said she’s raised about $1,000 through the fundraising effort so far and did not know how many individuals contributed.
A screenshot of the pitch being made on Brooks' website to solicit donations.
Brooks needs to raise at least $20,000 and have at least 250 individual contributions ranging from $5 to $150 to qualify to receive public financing through Montgomery County. Once she hits the threshold, she will receive matching contributions—$40 in matching taxpayer funds for a $10 contribution, $200 in taxpayer funds for a $50 contribution and $350 for a $100 contribution.
Brooks said she has about 15 percent of the individual contributions needed to qualify for public funds. Only contributions from Montgomery County residents qualify for matching funds.
Maryland’s Board of Elections’ guide for candidates specifically notes that they may use campaign funds to attend a charitable event to raise their profile and network with potential voters and donors. The guide, however, says giving campaign funds as charitable donations is not permitted primarily because donors give to a candidate to support their platform and “when campaigns are spent for a non-campaign related purpose, it frustrates the intent of the contributor.”
Jared DeMarinis, the director of candidacy and campaign finance for the state board, said staff members spoke with Brooks and told her she couldn’t use the contributions to donate directly to a charity. He said he did not know whether advertising the contributions previously as donations, then saying they would be spent on tickets and sponsorships would create a problem.
He declined to weigh in on whether candidates in the public financing system should be eligible for matching public funds if the contributions were raised under the guise of charitable donations.
County code notes that candidates can spend public money only for election expenses.
Bob Drummer, an attorney for the County Council, said contributions under the public financing system must be used to help a candidate get elected.
“I’m not sure if soliciting contributions by saying the money is going to hurricane relief in Florida, or wherever, I’m not so sure you can do that,” Drummer said. “That doesn’t sound right. I don’t know how she’ll find that many events, if she collects a lot of money.”
Brooks said she would not use matching campaign funds from the county to contribute to disaster relief outreach efforts if she later qualifies under the public financing system.
She said many communities hit by flooding are home to immigrants and others with ties to the county.
“When we talk about Montgomery for all—it’s about how do we ensure that communities in the broader community … are adequately protected and their needs are being met,” Brooks said. “If there are organizations in this area that are looking to support these kind of relief efforts, then what we’re doing is building relationships with those folks and the people who attend their events. That’s exactly what we need to be doing as a campaign.”
Adam Pagnucco, a blogger for Seventh State and political consultant for candidates in the county, said Monday that he felt the need to highlight the potential issue because the public financing system is so new, it’s not clear if candidates may raise money this way.
“If it’s not clarified, we could see similar behavior by other candidates,” Pagnucco said. “If we don’t get it clarified, we could be looking at the Wild West.”
Other Democratic at-large council candidates who have filed with the Board of Elections to use the public financing system include incumbent Council member Hans Riemer; the county’s recreation director, Gabe Albornoz; former attorney Bill Conway; former Obama administration official Will Jawando; Takoma Park activist Seth Grimes; Silver Spring resident Danielle Meitiv; Gandhi Brigade Executive Director Evan Glass; Northwood High School teacher Chris Wilhelm; and Silver Spring federal contractor Hoan Dang.