In Formal Response to Campaign Finance Allegation, Steele Says He’s Complying With Md. Law

Former Republican National Committee Chair and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who is considering a gubernatorial run, greets Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) at an Ocean City reception hosted by Sen. J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore and Harford counties). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

A lawyer representing former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele has filed a formal response to a complaint regarding his gubernatorial exploratory committee, rejecting an allegation that the committee is operating in violation of Maryland campaign finance law.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the state Board of Elections, Steele attorney Charlie Spies asserted that the fundraising entity the former lieutenant governor established for the exploratory phase of a possible gubernatorial campaign is following Maryland election law.

“To date our client has made no expenditures, therefore could not possibly be in violation of Maryland Election Law,” Spies told the board. “Our client is aware of the limited scope and purpose of exploratory committees and intends to continue complying with Maryland law.”

In August, Del. Lauren Arikan (R-Harford) filed a complaint with the elections board, alleging that Steele needed to create a state campaign finance committee to document contributions and expenses as he weighs a 2022 bid for governor.

Steele has created a “527” committee — named for a federal tax law provision that allows potential candidates to raise and spend money for limited purposes.

After Arikan filed her complaint, Jared DeMarinis, the head of the elections board’s Division of Candidacy and Campaign Finance, told Steele in a letter, “There are no statutory provisions that expressly authorize exploratory committees.”

“However, the Office of the Attorney General has advised that some exploratory or ‘testing the waters’ activities are permissible, but only for non-candidates,” he added.

Arikan did not immediately respond to a request for comment to the Steele team’s response to her complaint.

If Steele enters the race to succeed term-limited incumbent Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), he will compete for the GOP nomination against state Del. Daniel L. Cox (R-Frederick), a supporter of President Trump; state Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz; and frequent candidate Robin Ficker, a Montgomery County gadfly.

Steele’s apparent lack of spending struck some observers on Wednesday as odd — a sign that he may not be commissioning polls or undertaking other activities that are allowed for undeclared candidates.

But Jim Dornan, a Republican strategist advising Steele, said that would be a false conclusion to draw.

“He’s very serious about it,” Dornan said. “We are moving forward at a very deliberate pace.”

He said Steele intends to make a decision about whether to run fairly soon. Since leaving the RNC, he was been doing consulting and offering commentary on MSNBC, where he was recently featured as a guest host.

Although he made history when he became lieutenant governor in 2003 and again six years later when he took the helm of the RNC, many analysts believe Steele will have a tough time winning over Republican primary voters in the wake of his endorsement of Joe Biden.

“I just don’t see him as a viable candidate in a Republican primary,” said Marc Uncapher, secretary of the Maryland GOP. “I would have thought at least that they would do a poll to figure out where they stand.”

Dornan declined to say whether Steele has conducted surveys that he has yet to pay for.

“You would think, at the very least, there is some polling to be done,” said St. Mary’s College of Maryland political science professor Todd Eberly.

“For Steele, part of the fear has to be — he gets in, he creates a division between the establishment wing of the party, and that helps someone like Cox. That’s the last thing he would want to do.”

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