More Charges in MoCo Race: Complaint Hints of Improper Coordination Between Elrich, Progressive Md. (And Berliner)

Days after a voter asked the Maryland State Board of Elections to look into possible illegal coordination between a well-funded political entity and a leading candidate for Montgomery County executive, two other voters have asked election officials to do the same about the other leading contender for county executive. Sushant Sidh and David H. Carroll Jr., who run an Annapolis lobbying firm, have written to the state election board asking officials to look into possible improper coordination between the Montgomery executive campaign of Councilman Marc B. Elrich (D) and Progressive Maryland Liberation Alliance PAC, a political action committee that is supporting Elrich and other liberal candidates across the state. Sidh and Carroll, who previously had professional ties to another top contender for county executive, businessman David T. Blair, additionally have suggested that a third candidate for executive, Councilman Roger Berliner (D), may also be improperly coordinating with Elrich and/or the Progressive Maryland PAC.  Montgomery County Councilman Marc B. Elrich  The lobbyists also ask election officials whether the PAC’s support for Elrich may run afoul of Montgomery County’s new public financing system for candidates – and if so, whether such a determination “should lead to reimbursement of public funds and penalties for violating the spirit of the publicly funded campaign finance system.” Three of the six Democratic candidates for county executive, including Ehrlich, are accepting public funds for the campaigns, while political action committees attempting to influence the race are not.  “If coordination is evident, the Elrich campaign would have defrauded the public by directly coordinating funds obtained outside the public finance system,” Sidh and Carroll write. The liberal group’s PAC has been airing an ad for the last few days attacking Blair, who is one of two frontrunners, along with Elrich, in the Democratic primary for county executive. The ad calls into question Blair’s business practices, notes that he is a former Republican, and compares him to President Trump, a political novice who had no political experience before being elected to office. The PAC has spent at least $130,000 to air the ad, according to recent campaign finance filings. The Progressive Maryland Liberation Alliance PAC has also put out fliers supporting Elrich and is running a ground game for its favored candidates, including Elrich. “In essence, Progressive Maryland has directed its staffers to serve on the Elrich campaign while at the same time it claims that its efforts to publicly smear a political opponent of Elrich aren’t being coordinated,” Sidh and Carroll write. “It is difficult to imagine a scenario where personnel actively aiding a campaign haven’t discussed activities meant to benefit a candidate at the expense of another.” It is illegal for candidates to coordinate activities – or even communicate – with separate political entities that support their campaigns. Sidh and Carroll are two of the three principals in the Annapolis lobbying firm Capitol Strategies. They represented Blair’s former health care business, Catalyst Rx, before the legislature and other state government agencies several years ago and have served as informal political advisers to Blair through the years. In a TV ad that ran earlier this month, Berliner echoed some of the same themes about Blair’s record that the Progressive Maryland PAC is advancing in its ad – including an image in which Blair’s face morphs into Trump’s. Berliner has also sent a letter to fellow Democrats telling them that if they decide not to vote for him, he hopes they will vote for any of his Democratic primary opponents other than Blair, because Blair has not previously been involved in county affairs. In his note, first reported on the blog The Seventh State, Berliner wrote, “My other Democratic opponents have a history of involvement in local issues and have earned the right to be considered. I hope you choose me, but they each have experience as Democrats worth evaluating.” Carroll and Sidh suggested this looks like coordination between the councilmen. “Turning to the suspected coordination between the Berliner and Elrich campaigns, given the similarities in messaging strategies, it is reasonable to assume that the two campaigns have coordinated, sharing information, messaging and strategy,” they wrote. “Such coordination is unethical if not illegal, especially if done with the expectation of receiving political favors. Should Mr. Elrich or Mr. Berliner prevail…an investigation should remain open until such time that the next Executive in Montgomery County has selected their top level staff.” As first reported by Maryland Matters, Brian Kildee, a Montgomery County Democratic activist, asked the Maryland State Board of Elections last week to investigate whether Empower Montgomery, a political entity connected to developers and business leaders, has accurately characterized its mission in official documents and whether it was illegally coordinating activities with Blair’s campaign. The organization, funded mostly by developers and other real estate interests, is touting a report card that shows Blair with one of the most pro-business records among the candidates for county executive, and Elrich with the worst. Empower Montgomery has spent about $110,000 for mailers into Democratic voters’ homes, according to recent campaign finance statements. With the Maryland primary set for Tuesday, there is little the state election board can do, as a practical matter, to immediately address the complaints about illegal coordination between candidates and other political committees. Representatives for Elrich, Berliner and Progressive Maryland could not immediately be reached for comment Sunday afternoon. [email protected]

Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent more than two decades on local television, including 14 years as host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the D.C. metro region. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County, as well as a reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. Bruce also is the host of the weekly The Bruce DePuyt Podcast.

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