A Super PAC with ties to a Republican consulting firm whose Annapolis offices were raided by the FBI last year is circulating a late political hit on Democratic gubernatorial nominee Benjamin T. Jealous in Prince George’s County – and the mailer was partially paid for by a prominent State House lobbyist.
The glossy flier, hitting the mailboxes of Prince George’s Democrats who did not cast their ballots during early voting, says Jealous’ election would jeopardize the future of the new Prince George’s Medical Center, which is now under construction in Largo. The mailer implies that Jealous’ support for a “Medicare-for-All” health care system in Maryland could cost the state vital federal funding for the regional medical center.
The attack was launched by an entity called the Maryland Victory Fund PAC, which formed earlier this year. And it has been partially funded by Bruce C. Bereano, one of the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis and a vocal supporter of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R).
In filings with the Maryland State Board of Elections, the PAC chairman is listed as Charles H. O’Neil and its treasurer is Kelley Rogers. Rogers and O’Neil are the president and vice president, respectively, of Strategic Campaign Group, a Republican consulting firm based in Annapolis.
In May 2017, the FBI raided Strategic Campaign Group’s offices on Main Street in Annapolis. Rogers told The Baltimore Sun at the time that the FBI search was for materials related to the firm’s work for Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Virginia in 2013, and was not connected to the firm’s clients in Maryland. Previous clients have included the campaign committees for Maryland Senate and House Republicans, and the 2016 congressional campaign of Del. Patrick McDonough (R-Baltimore County), and the 2016 U.S. Senate campaign of House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County).
In 2014, Cuccinelli sued Rogers, McGrath, Strategic Campaign Group and Conservative Strike Force PAC, which was connecting to the firm, accusing them of raising vast sums of money but only delivering a small fraction to his campaign. The case was settled out of court the following year.
A file at the federal courthouse in Baltimore refers to the FBI raid – which was launched out of the bureau’s Washington, D.C., office – but has no updated information about any investigation into Strategic Campaign Group since May 2017. In an interview Monday, Rogers said the firm has heard nothing from federal authorities since the raid and “there is nothing further I can tell you about that.”
What is clear from Maryland campaign finance records is that on Nov. 1, three individuals wrote checks to the Maryland Victory Fund PAC, which was then used for the Prince George’s mailer attacking Jealous. Bereano’s was for $7,500; Michelle Manganaro of Crownsville, wife of construction company executive and horse breeder Anthony Manganaro, wrote a $5,000 check; and Warren Williams, a Washington, D.C., real estate developer who lives in Chevy Chase, wrote a check for $2,500.
The Manganaros are regular contributors to Republican candidates and causes. Williams has made contributions to several Democrats and a few Republicans.
In an interview, Bereano said he was moved to get involved after being briefed about the ramifications of Jealous’ health care plan on Prince George’s Hospital by experts associated with MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society.
“It’s just critical to the county,” Bereano said of the new hospital, which after a series of delays is tentatively set to open in 2022. “It was a legitimate cause – to me a very important cause.”
Gene M. Ransom III, MedChi’s executive director, said he discussed the issue of Medicaid and Medicare funding for the state and its potential impact on the hospital with Bereano last month after the Sun published an article about Jealous’ health care proposal, and said that as far as he could tell, the assertions the PAC was planning to make were accurate. Ransom added that the medical society’s own PAC has chosen not to take sides in a gubernatorial election since 2002 and was in no way formally involved with the anti-Jealous flier.
“I guess I was the unofficial fact-checker,” he said.
Bereano, who was convicted of mail fraud in a 1994 federal corruption trial for overbilling his clients, was called out by Jealous at a news conference last month on ethics in Annapolis. But the lobbyist said his decision to help pay for a mailer on Prince George’s Hospital was made before the former NAACP president attacked him.
“I’m all in to the Hogan reelection,” he said. “It’s no secret that I’m working very hard to help my very dear friend get reelected.”
Prince George’s County officials have been working with the Hogan administration and the federal government to secure funding for the new hospital, which is being built in conjunction with Dimensions Healthcare Systems and the University of Maryland Medical System.
But during his unsuccessful campaign against Jealous for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination earlier this year, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) never once suggested that his rival’s health care proposal could hurt the new hospital, and two top county officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity Monday, rejected the narrative in the mailer.
“It’s almost offensive to me,” one of the officials said.
According to campaign documents, Maryland Victory Fund PAC paid $12,175 on Nov. 1 to Campaign Communications, Inc., a company affiliated with Strategic Campaign Group, to design, print and mail the anti-Jealous fliers. Rogers said his firm was “contacted by the [PAC] donors” with the research to put together the mailing.
“We took it to an independent fact-checker before sending it out,” Rogers said.
The PAC’s formation was initially shrouded in mystery.
It was set up about two weeks before the June 26 Maryland primaries, documents show, to elect a Democratic candidate for Charles County commissioner president, former Commissioner Reuben B. Collins, and four Democratic candidates for county commissioner slots – Gilbert “BJ” Bowling, Jason Henry, Derrick Terry and Bobby Rucci, an incumbent.
The Maryland Independent reported shortly before the primary that the PAC has been bankrolled by a local real estate trust and was distributing fliers in support of these Democratic candidates – though the candidates said they had never heard of the PAC or sought its support.
“I’m scratching my head over the purpose and the perceived outcome of this group,” Collins told the newspaper. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense. What would be the interests of a Republican group for creating that type of [campaign flier] for five candidates who have not necessarily been aligned on the issues?”
O’Neil and Rogers did not respond to the newspaper’s inquiries at the time, but Rogers said Monday that the firm will perform work for Democratic candidates if there are no Republican opponents, and was hired to work in heavily Democratic Charles County by an entity that “wanted to elect a slate of business-friendly candidates.”
In that June 26 primary, Collins ousted incumbent Commissioner President Peter F. Murphy (D) in a three-way race, taking 43 percent of the vote. Rucci was renominated handily, and Bowling won a crowded open-seat primary with 39 percent. Henry and Terry finished far out of the money in their respective primaries.
Bereano said he is happy with the firm’s work and is pleased with the anti-Jealous mailers circulating throughout Prince George’s County.
“I wish it had gone out earlier,” he said, “but better late than never.”