Thursday •  March 24, 2022

“Ownership & Monopoly-Like Control?”: An Examination of The Howard Hughes Corporation’s Local Election Campaign Contributions

 

Introduction

An April 2021 HoCo Watchdogs post detailed how The Howard Hughes Corporation, the “Master Developer” for Downtown Columbia, Maryland, has been actively boasting in official investor presentations about the company’s “ability to control cities” and how it strives to establish “ownership and monopoly-like control” of small cities such as Columbia, MD.

How exactly does The Howard Hughes Corporation ensure its “monopoly-like control” over Columbia?

 

As one of the largest political influencers in Howard County, The Howard Hughes Corporation employs an army of lobbyists each year to encourage local officials to broker land use & development deals and pass legislation that favors their business plan and maximizes their profits.  The company held 17 lobbyists to the Howard County government in 2019, 11 lobbyists in 2020, 8 lobbyists in 2021, and 7 lobbyists in 2022.

With the help of these lobbyists and the publicly traded company’s extremely “deep pockets”, The Howard Hughes Corporation has rapidly become one of the largest political donors in Howard County and the state of Maryland over the past decade.

 

Just how much money has The Howard Hughes Corporation and their lobbyists contributed to local elections and how have some of these activities not adhered to requirements set by Maryland Election Law?

Maryland Campaign Finance Law Background

 

First, let’s examine the law pertaining to campaign finance contribution limits:

Section 13-226 of Maryland Election Law states that “a person may not, either directly or indirectly, in an election cycle make aggregate contributions in excess of (1) $6,000 to any one campaign finance entity;  or (2) $24,000 to all campaign finance entities.”

 

State laws such as this one stem from federal limits established by the Federal Election Campaign Act and exist in order to minimize the risk of “pay to play” political corruption that could arise from single entities donating vast sums of money to political candidates and parties.

 

For this Maryland law, an election cycle is defined as “the period that begins on the January 1 that follows a gubernatorial election and continues until the December 31 that is 4 years later”.  The current election cycle began January 1, 2019 and will go through December 31, 2022.  The previous cycle was from January 1, 2015 through December 31, 2018.

Campaign Contributions from The Howard Hughes Corporation & Associated Lobbyists

 

Now let’s examine the Electoral campaign contribution history of The Howard Hughes Corporation and its registered Howard County lobbyists over the past two election cycles:

 

In the last election cycle (January 1, 2015 – December 31, 2018), The Howard Hughes Corporation directly contributed over $77,000 to Maryland election campaigns (over 300% the aggregate limit of $24,000 defined in Maryland Election Law).  Of that amount, over $38,000 was contributed to Howard County local official and state representative candidates. 

During this current election cycle (January 1, 2019 – present), The Howard Hughes Corporation has directly contributed over $57,000 to Maryland election campaigns.  Of that amount, over $32,000 has been contributed to Howard County local official and state representative candidates.

Many of these contributions have been made under the company’s local subsidiary of “Howard Research & Development Corporation”, “Howard Hughes Research & Development Corp.” etc.

 

Recently, donations have even been made under the simple name of “Columbia”, sometimes with a misspelled Contributor Address (e.g. “10480 Little Patuxen Parkway Suite 400” or “10480 Little Pattuxent Parkway Suite 400” instead of the correct “10480 Little Patuxent Parkway Suite 400”).  This is the only time that this address has been misspelled over the course of 15+ years of electoral contributions from business entities at “10480 Little Patuxent Parkway Suite 400 Columbia, MD”.

 

This is worth repeating: An entity with the same address & electoral contribution pattern as The Howard Hughes Corporation is now beginning to make campaign finance donations with the label of “Columbia” and a misspelled contributor address. 

Is this one way that The Howard Hughes Corporation demonstrates its self-proclaimed “ownership and monopoly-like control” over small cities such as Columbia?

 

The above contributions were made directly by The Howard Hughes Corporation and its local subsidiary “Howard Research & Development Corporation” and do not include contributions made by the company’s local lobbyists or by other associated subsidiaries specific to the company’s local development projects. Also excluded are contributions made by individual employees of The Howard Hughes Corporation.  Some employees contributed significant amounts to the same local candidates that the company itself heavily contributed to.

 

During the current election cycle (January 1, 2019 – present), The Howard Hughes Corporation’s local registered lobbyists have contributed over $77,000 to Maryland candidate campaigns, including:

  • Over $46,000 from Damian O’Doherty (at least $9,400 of which was given to Howard County jurisdiction local & state candidates)

 

  • Over $15,000 from Jonas Jacobson (at least $7,200 of which was given to Howard County jurisdiction local & state candidates)

 

  • Over $15,000 from Richard Abbruzzese (at least $2,750 of which was given to Howard County jurisdiction local & state candidates)

 

  • Over $1,300 from Jean Moon (all of which was given to Howard County jurisdiction local & state candidates)

While the above electoral contributions were made by each person as an individual, the pattern of their contributions tends to align with and complement contributions made directly by The Howard Hughes Corporation to certain candidates – particularly those that have turned out to be extremely pro-development.

 

Would these individuals still have made these thousands & tens of thousands of aggregate contributions if they were not employed as lobbyists by The Howard Hughes Corporation? 

 

Are these individuals being reimbursed in some way for these massive individual donations? 

 

Are they padding their lobbyist fees in order to then pass along those inflated fees in the amount of political contributions? 

 

If so, these donations should count as coming directly from the company that provides the reimbursements or pays for the lobbyists’ “unofficially inflated” fees.

Concerns about Certain Electoral Contributions & Disclosure of Contributions Reports

 

Beyond the size of campaign contributions being regularly dispersed by The Howard Hughes Corporation and its registered Howard County lobbyists, certain campaign contribution activities have raised serious concern when scrutinized and compared to the requirements set by Maryland Election Law.

 

First and foremost, the Howard Hughes Corporation lobbyist who has contributed the largest aggregate amount to local elections, Damian O’Doherty, recently exceeded the Election Law limit of $6,000 to one candidate per election cycle.  As of December 2021, O’Doherty has contributed $7,000 to the campaign of Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. between April 2019 and December 2021.

In addition to this obvious Election Law violation, O’Doherty’s three $950 to Neveen Kurtom (Howard County Council candidate for District 1) in late 2021 and early 2022 each were made with a noticeable error in the Contributor last name:  O”Doherty versus O’Doherty (quotation mark instead of apostrophe between the ‘O’ and ‘Doherty’).

Also, while not shown here for privacy considerations, the publicly available listed address for these 2021 & 2022 contributions by O’Doherty to Neveen Kurtom is a residence that the O’Doherty family sold in 2020, according to SDAT records

 

Were these errors in contributor name and address accidental or deliberate? 

 

Also, why is a lobbyist for the “Master Developer” of Downtown Columbia (in District 4) donating to Neveen Kurtom, a District 1 candidate for Howard County Council? 

 

The same question can be asked about The Howard Hughes Corporation’s enthusiastic financial backing of County Councilmember Opel Jones (District 2), whose land use & general policy decisions since taking office have predominantly been very friendly towards Howard Hughes and their associated local business partners.

 

How are residents in Ellicott City and Elkridge supposed to feel when their potential future County Councilmember is taking campaign contributions from developers whose real property interests are not even in their District?

Next, let’s discuss the aggregate limits established by Maryland Election Law to minimize the risk of “pay to play”.  It’s clear that The Howard Hughes Corporation has exceeded the $24,000 aggregate limit to contributions made to Maryland campaign finance entities for both the last election cycle and as well as the current cycle.

 

However, the United States Supreme Court rendered this particular section of Maryland Election Law unenforceable their decision in the 2014 case, McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission.

 

In this case, the Supreme Court ruled in a controversial 5-4 decision that aggregate limits on campaign contributions “limited participation in the democratic process” and were therefore a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Thus, any aggregate limits on campaign contributions established at the state level immediately became unenforceable, opening the floodgates for entities like The Howard Hughes Corporation to contribute amounts far beyond many citizens’ annual salaries to influence local elections. 

 

Despite this federal ruling, Section 13-226 of Maryland Election Law still is included in the current version of state law.  The Howard Hughes Corporation’s choice to exceed this limit may be legal, but it flies in the face of the “anti-corruption/anti-pay to play” spirit of this law.

 

The law paper “Aggregate Corruption” is recommended as an excellent supplementary read on the controversy of the Supreme Court’s decision of McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission and how it potentially enabled deep-pocket special interest groups to dominate local politics.  

Finally, let’s examine some important contribution disclosure requirements that The Howard Hughes Corporation is required to file semi-annually and that they appear to be failing to accurately report.

 

Beginning in 2015, in an effort to shine light on political contributions made by government contractors and their principals, Maryland Election law was updated to require all entities with contracts with local governments greater than $200,000 and all entities who employ registered Maryland lobbyists to semi-annually report their Electoral contributions that exceed $500 by filing a Disclosure of Contributions report.   

 

As “Master Developer” of Downtown Columbia and as a company that regularly employs lobbyists at the state & local levels, The Howard Hughes Corporation is required to report all Electoral contributions exceeding $500 that the company makes to candidates for public office in the State, county, or other political subdivision with which the company is doing public business (in this case, Howard County and its associated local elected offices, state Delegates & State Senators).

 

Disclosure of Contributions reports are publicly available onlineThe Business ID for The Howard Hughes Corporation is 14000838.

 

Here are all of the Disclosure of Contributions reports filed by The Howard Hughes Corporation since 2017 and how they compare with their reported contributions listed in the Maryland Campaign Reporting Information System  :

The Howard Hughes Corporation began its filings with relatively accurate and complete information.  The first Disclosure of Contributions report that it filed in 2017 accurately reported 8 out of 9 major contributions that the company had made to Howard County-affiliated candidates for public office and included the contributions made in the name of its subsidiary, “Howard Research & Development Corporation”. 

 

Reporting began to decline in subsequent reports, with 9 out of 14 contributions reported in the 2nd filing and 7 out of 12 reported in the 3rd filing. 

 

Beginning with the company’s 4th Disclosure of Contributions report, in 2019, the company began to not report any of its contributions to Howard County-associated candidates for public office, only listing a few individual donations made by its Regional President, Greg Fitchett, and none of the contributions made by “The Howard Hughes Corporation” or “Howard Research & Development Corporation”.

Playing Both Sides

 

The trend of “playing both sides” is a common theme for The Howard Hughes Corporation and its associated leaders & lobbyists. 

 

During the last election cycle, The Howard Hughes Corporation directly contributed $3,750 to Allan Kittleman (Republican) and $6,000 to Calvin Ball (Democrat) – the two main candidates in the 2018 race for Howard County Executive. 

 

Between 2015 and January 2022, The Howard Hughes Corporation Regional President for Columbia, Greg Fitchitt, personally contributed almost $5,000 to Howard County jurisdiction local & state candidates, including $2,000 to County Executive Calvin Ball. 

 

Curiously enough, this donation from Fitchitt to Ball came in December 2018, after Ball had narrowly defeated incumbent candidate Allan Kittleman in the Howard County Executive election race.  Prior to that point, Fitchitt had personally donated $900 to Kittleman’s campaign prior to the November 2018 election.

 

In 2017 and 2018, The Howard Hughes Corporation contributed $6,000 to the “Republican State Central Committee Of Maryland” and $6,000 to the “Howard County Republican Central Committee”.  They also contributed a whopping $35,000 to the “Howard County Republican Central Committee” in “Administrative” contributions, which is a type of contribution not subject to the $6,000 limit of standard “Electoral” contributions and which the receiving entity cannot use for election-related expenses or transfers. 

 

When the pendulum had firmly back swung to solidly Democrat-affiliated leadership in Howard County after the “Blue Wave” of the 2018 and 2020 elections, The Howard Hughes Corporation then proceeded to give $2,000 in “Electoral” contributions and $20,000 in “Administrative” contributions to the “Democratic Senate Caucus Committee of Maryland” and $10,000 in “Administrative” contributions to the “Democratic State Central Committee Of Maryland”.

 

Combined, The Howard Hughes Corporation has contributed a total of $47,000 to Republican Howard County & State Central Committees and $32,000 to Democratic State & Senate Caucus Committees over the past 5 years.

Concluding Thoughts

 

To be clear upfront: The Howard Hughes Corporation has the right to participate in the election process and contribute to local political campaigns within the constraints of the law.  However, as Downtown Columbia’s “Master Developer”, the electoral contributions that they and their lobbyists make and the impact that these contributions have on local politicians and their political decisions is something that all Howard County residents should be aware of and scrutinize. 

 

Will the politicians that The Howard Hughes Corporation so aggressively contributes to make decisions that are in the best long-term interest of the county and its residents?….

 

…or will they instead make decisions that predominantly benefit developers like The Howard Hughes Corporation and its goal of “ownership and monopoly-like control” of Columbia, at the expense of Howard County’s long-term fiscal, social & environmental sustainability?

 

Every politician is influenced by electoral contributions to varying degrees, but the last HoCo Watchdogs post, entitled “One Too Many Hats for State Delegate Jessica Feldmark? The Concerning Case of Calvin’s Ball’s Special New Employee”, is a highly recommended read that covers this very concern. 

 

Is it a coincidence that The Howard Hughes Corporation heavily funded both County Executive Calvin Ball as well as State Delegate Jessica Feldmark, and that Ball subsequently recommended Feldmark to be hired as Howard County’s special “Downtown Columbia Liaison” employee, paid approximately $75 per hour to manage business relationships & major county-level decisions with downtown Columbia developers such as The Howard Hughes Corporation?

 

The “playing both partisan sides” nature of The Howard Hughes Corporation’s local & state contributions, the skirting of campaign finance limits by one of their registered Howard County lobbyists, and the company’s sloppy adherence to Maryland’s Disclosure of Contributions filing requirements only elevates these concerns. 

 

Where is the oversight and accountability from the Maryland Board of Elections?

 

What can Howard County residents do to push back against this dominating influence by a corporation that boasts about its “ability to control small cities”?

 

At the end of the day, all candidates for political office have a choice to accept or reject electoral contributions given to them by special interest groups like The Howard Hughes Corporation.

At any time, a candidate can choose to reject those contributions or donate them to a worthwhile cause. 

How amazing would it be if every candidate for local office here in Howard County chose to donate all campaign contributions made by developers and their associated employees, LLCs, subsidiaries, lobbyists etc. to the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) Capital Budget Fund to support the building of new schools?

 

Fortunately, two new local programs have recently been created to support candidates who embrace the choice to reject massive donations from special interest groups such as The Howard Hughes Corporation and to provide Howard County voters in 2022 and future elections with knowledge of candidates who make this bold choice: the Citizens’ Election Fund  and the “No Developer No Dark Money Campaign Pledge”.

 

Before voting for any particular candidate for County Executive, County Council, State Delegate, Board of Education etc., it will be wise for Howard County voters to become informed about which candidates have signed on for each of these electoral campaign programs and to strongly consider that information when deciding between candidates. 

 

While the stances of a particular candidate may not be in alignment with you on certain niche issues, there is the high likelihood that candidates that sign on to the Citizens’ Election Fund and/or the “No Developer No Dark Money Campaign Pledge” will make major county-wide decisions regarding land use, development, and school redistricting — housing decisions that ultimately affect the way of life of all Howard County residents — with the long-term sustainability of the county and its residents at the forefront of their minds and without significant pressure or financial influence from wholly self-serving entities such as The Howard Hughes Corporation.

 

Choosing to vote for local candidates who participate in the Citizens’ Election Fund and/or the “No Developer No Dark Money Campaign Pledge” is one of the most powerful ways that Howard County residents can ensure that no entity ever claims “ownership and monopoly-like control” of Columbia or the county, regardless of how many lobbyists they hire or how much money they pour into local elections. 

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1 Comment

  1. You might want to take a look at the Draft of HoCo by Design Chapter 1 Dynamic Neighborhoods. It IDs the route 1 area in D1and D2 ripe for redevelopment and building new dynamic city centers A La Columbia and Maple Lawn. That may explain the contributions. The grooming of the candidates for rezoning under Comp Zoning after “The Plan” is approved. FYI in my opinion that plan was written by developers for developers.

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