Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) will file an ethics complaint against a member of the state Senate on Monday, following the lawmaker’s claim that Maryland’s tax collector “extorted” campaign contributions from liquor interests.
Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) made the claim on Friday during testimony on a bill that would shift field enforcement of alcohol, cigarettes and gasoline sales from the Office of the Comptroller to a new five-person commission appointed by the governor.
“There has never been another comptroller that has abused the power and the authority of this once-honorable office to extort hundreds and thousands of dollars from those industries the public entrusted him to regulate,” Kramer said in testimony before the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Asked by a reporter after the hearing if he stood by his accusation, Kramer said, “absolutely, 100 percent.”
“The comptroller has not only actively solicited campaign contributions from those entities that he is charged with regulating, but since the inception of the [alcohol regulation] task force, both Del. [Warren E.] Miller (R-Howard and Carroll) and I have been approached by numerous alcohol interests who have said they are intimidated by the comptroller, because when he approaches them for campaign contributions, for political contributions, the way it is characterized by him, they are concerned that if they do not do so, then they are exposed to some potential action by his office.”
In a brief interview with reporters outside the hearing room, Franchot called Kramer’s charge “ludicrous.”
Franchot’s chief of staff, Len Foxwell, was more expansive. He told Maryland Matters, “Senator Kramer’s comments go well beyond the boundaries of normal legislative discourse. They are beyond offensive; they are slanderous, and we are going to be following up on this hearing with the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, because his behavior in this hearing this afternoon is utterly unacceptable.”
In a conversation with reporters, Kramer declined to identify any individuals who reported feeling intimidated by Franchot’s campaign solicitations. “They did not want to go on the record. That’s why they didn’t come in and testify.”
At one point during the 2018 campaign, Franchot had nearly $1.6 million in his campaign account. Because he faced only token opposition in his re-election bid, he still had over a million dollars in cash-on-hand in his annual campaign finance report filed in mid-January.
“If you take a look at the campaign contributions, you say to yourself, ‘Why are these entities putting that much money in the comptroller’s pocket? Why?” Kramer said. “We are talking hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“They are, I think, legitimately frightened and intimidated by him and this legislation will take all of that away. … I am concerned that there is arm-twisting going on that should not be happening.”