Rep. Anthony Brown, Democrat of Maryland, wants to be the state’s top law enforcement officer, but his own campaign’s spending may violate state election law, according to campaign finance experts.
On Oct. 25, the three-term congressman declared that he was retiring from Congress to run for Maryland attorney general. TIME reviewed his financial disclosures and found that he had used his Congressional campaign funds to finance his bid for statewide election.
Brown’s Congressional campaign spent as much as $40,000 supporting his campaign for attorney general between November 2021 and March 2022, the TIME review found. The biggest ticket item was more than $24,000 for the salary for his state campaign’s finance director, according to Brown’s most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission. Meanwhile, Brown spent nothing from his state account’s war chest to compensate the campaign’s staff in its first months of operation, the TIME review found.
It could also be illegal. Maryland’s election laws set a contribution limit to state campaign committees of $6,000 per election cycle. The payments from Brown’s federal campaign committee to support his attorney general race may have exceeded the legal contribution limit by as much as $34,000 over the last five months, the campaign finance experts say.
“This is a credible violation, since it’s clearly, under the law, a contribution,” says Ann Ravel, former chair of the FEC during the Obama years and now a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law, referring to the federal committee’s expenditures.
Salary payments pose a problem. “In payroll, you’ve got to stay current,” says Michael Toner, former chair of the FEC during the Bush administration. “If the fundraising person is being paid by the federal campaign committee during a period when the congressman has announced he’s not running for another term—he’s running for attorney general—that creates a pretty strong inference that that’s subsidizing the attorney general race.”
Brown declined to answer any questions. The campaign strongly denies that any wrongdoing occurred. They say Brown’s federal election funds have been spent on the six-month process of “winding down” his congressional campaign, not supporting his state attorney general race. “All federal expenditures have been made as a part of Congressman Brown’s official duties, as well as the costs of winding down the office,” Dylan Liau Arant, Brown’s state campaign manager, tells TIME. The finance director had been working “split time” for the state campaign, for which he will later be reimbursed, and his compensation from the congressional campaign, where he has also served as finance director since 2019, will stop soon, Liau Arant says.
Double hatting is not uncommon, however, operatives working simultaneously for a state and federal campaign are usually compensated equally, Maryland election experts say. Brown’s state attorney general campaign has paid $0 toward the finance director’s salary since last October, according to his most recent state campaign finance disclosures. Over that period, that same operative helped raise more than $600,000 for Brown’s state attorney general campaign.
Maryland’s Democratic primary for attorney general is among the most competitive in years. Brown graduated from Harvard Law School and served as former governor. Martin O’Malley’s lieutenant from 2007 to 2015. He is now running against O’Malley’s wife, Katie Curran O’Malley, who served as a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge until she announced her bid for attorney general last year. Joe Curran O’Malley, her father was the Maryland attorney general, from 1987 to 2007.
With the July 19th primary election approaching, this campaign is expected to get more intense. Early polling, from December, showed Brown with a two to one lead over Curran O’Malley. Maryland hasn’t elected a Republican to the office since the 1950s, making the primary especially important.
Annapolis political analysts believe that Brown’s campaign spending woes could throw a wrench into the race. “If you’re running to be the chief law enforcement officer of the state of Maryland, you cannot have legal or financial questions regarding your campaign,” says John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County. “It’s a bad look.”
It’s not clear why Brown, 61, would use his Congressional campaign money on his attorney general campaign, rather than the more than $600,000 in his state account at his disposal. But a review of Brown’s political career shows this isn’t the first time his campaign finance practices have invited scrutiny.
Fundraising campaigns have had a difficult history
Anthony Brown, the heir apparent of the Maryland governorship in 2014 was widely considered. He’d served as lieutenant governor for eight years, and both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton held fundraisers and rallies for him. FiveThirtyEight named him the 94% favorite in a state that has Democrats overtaking Republicans by two to 1.
Larry Hogan’s vigorously organized campaign took Brown completely by surprise. Hogan had been pillorying the O’Malley-Brown administration for raising taxes, and the political upstart took aim at Brown’s management of the botched rollout of the state’s new healthcare exchange under the Affordable Care Act. Brown led Hogan by 18 points in June 2014. Come October, Brown’s lead had shrunk to nine points.
Brown, who was concerned about his political future, authorized his campaign for a loan of $500,000 from Laborers International Union. The money would be used to pay his staff and direct mail advertising. Brown’s team planned to pay it back with a surge of campaign donations in the final days of the election. “We will not have any debt after the election,” his campaign manager at the time told The Baltimore Sun.
In November Brown was defeated by Hogan five to one and left with $500,000 in debt. A former Army lieutenant, Brown had signed a personal guarantee for the loan’s repayment and was personally liable for it, according to The Sun. His state campaign account didn’t have enough leftover cash on hand to pay off the whole debt.
Brown’s political prospects improved the following year. In March 2015, Brown announced his candidacy for one of Maryland’s open U.S. House seats. Brown lent $400,000 to his Congressional campaign from his personal assets over the course of this race. Brown was elected and the contributions began flooding in. Brown’s campaign managed to repay him the personal loan he had.
But Brown’s state campaign account was still in the red. Brown made another personal loan to the campaign to help it repay the union in January 2018. His state campaign was owed $275,000 at the time, according to The Sun.
That debt continued for three years. Brown was an American. His state campaign account had been closed by the Congressman. This October was a turning point. After Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection, Brown launched his bid and began raising money for the state account once again. The finance director, who had worked for Brown’s congressional campaign, was given the same title for Brown’s attorney general campaign. Within three months, he helped raise $647,000, with $617,520 cash on hand, according to Brown’s first campaign finance report to the Maryland Board of Elections.
The same report did not include payments for consultants or campaign staff. Brown spent $0 on salaries and wages between October 2021-March 22nd and $280.11 to rent and other office supplies. In contrast, the current Maryland Attorney General Frosh, eight years ago was running for the same office. According to his January 2014 finances report, Brown had spent more that $103,000 on salary and over $7,000 on rent, office supplies, and other expenses during this campaign.
During this same time period between October 2021 and March 22, Brown’s Congressional campaign account spent roughly $40,000 on costs that appear to support his state campaign, including salaries, payroll taxes, workers compensation insurance and other expenses, like cell phone charges and rent at a temporary office space called The Yard, according to his two latest FEC reports. The biggest outlay from Brown’s federal campaign account in support of his state campaign were the salary payments.
Maryland election officials declined to comment on Brown’s finances, but a senior official said payments for services to a campaign are not allowed to exceed the $6,000 limit. “If other entities pay for services provided to a campaign, it is considered an in-kind contribution,” says Jared DeMarinis, director of the candidacy and campaign finance division of Maryland Board of Elections. “In-kind contributions are subject to the contribution limit of $6,000 for the four year election cycle.”
Brown’s campaign manager, Liau Arant, says the salary from the federal committee wasn’t paying for work on the state campaign. The disbursements were for the finance director “performing wind down functions for Anthony Brown for Congress” while he was “working for Friends of Anthony Brown on split time,” Liau Arant says. “The finance director agreed to be paid after the January reporting deadline, which is common practice in both state and federal campaigns to keep the cash on hand number as high as possible and permissible by Maryland and federal campaign finance law.”
Experts in campaign finance say the state account should retroactively have paid Ravel shortly after the deadline. This was for the period of three months when he raised nearly $650,000. “That’s the norm,” says former FEC chair Ravel. “That’s something that they should have done had they intended to pay with that mechanism.” Failing that, the finance director’s salary should at least have been listed as an outstanding bill on the latest Maryland filing. “Otherwise, it seems like this is all the explanation they came up with once the media started to inquire,” says a former Maryland election official.
Liau Arant, who began working for Brown in January, also disputed that other charges disclosed in Brown’s federal campaign filings were related to the state attorney general campaign. He said the cell phone was “still being used in connection with the Congressman’s official duties and wind down activities” but that “the state account will reimburse the federal account for any use of the cell phone for the Attorney General campaign.”
Liau Arant also challenged the belief that the Congressional campaign funded office space was being used to support the attorney general’s bid. “There are separate accounts at The Yard, one for the winding down of the federal campaign and the other for the AG campaign,” Liau Arant said. “These amounts are billed and will be reported, separately.”
Brown’s attorney general campaign began paying for an extra desk in shared office space at The Yard in February and added another one in April, according to invoices provided to TIME by the Brown campaign. TIME went to the congressional campaign office last week and the finance director was still using the space. Asked for a business card, he said he didn’t have any. “I only have ones from the congressional campaign,” he said. “They’re not current.”
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