ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Companies with business interests in Maryland made substantial donations last year to the Democratic Governors Association, which is chaired by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, according to a year-end financial disclosure report made public this week by the Internal Revenue Service.
Colm O'Comartun, the DGA's executive director, said donors contribute to support the DGA.
"Contributors to the DGA give money to the committee to elect more Democratic governors, and we're thankful for their support," O'Comartun said in an email.
Government watchdog groups, however, said the process creates another way for donors to pump money into politics.
"While it's perfectly legal, citizens should question whether it's money trying to buy access to power," said Susan Wichmann, executive director of Maryland Common Cause, a government watchdog group. "It speaks to the whole predicament of money in politics now, when you have these rules that allow unlimited sums of money to flow it can create real concern for voters."
Catalyst Rx, a Rockville, Md., company that is seeking a $2.4 billion contract with Maryland to provide prescription drug coverage to state employees, donated $100,000 to the DGA in October.
Catalyst, which currently provides the benefits for the state, has been in a protracted battle with Missouri-based Express Scripts Inc. for a new contract. The Maryland Department of Budget and Management, which is part of the O'Malley administration, has recommended that Express Scripts receive the contract, because the state could save as much as $102 million under the company's proposal.
The state's Board of Public Works, which includes O'Malley as one of three members, was initially scheduled to approve the contract for Express Scripts in March 2011. But the board, whose other members are Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot, has delayed taking a vote on the contract. That has meant that Catalyst has continued to provide the benefits during the delay.
The board decided to postpone voting on the contract until the state's Board of Contract Appeals made a decision on Catalyst's protest of the procurement process. The Board of Contract Appeals rejected the protest last month.
Chris Burns, a spokesman for Catalyst, said the company delivers prescription drug benefits to more than 18 million people in almost all 50 states.
"As a result of that, we work with leaders of state government as they're thinking through policy decisions and how to navigate the rapidly changing health care environment," Burns said.
Gambling interests that either own casinos in Maryland or are seeking a license to build one made donations toward the end of the year. Maryland lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly are expected to debate legislation to expand gambling in the state to include table games at casinos in addition to slot machines.
Caesars Entertainment Inc. made a $50,000 donation in December. Caesars is seeking approval for a casino in Baltimore with 3,750 slot machines. Penn National Gaming, which owns the Hollywood Casino in Perryville, donated $25,000 in October. The W.M. Rickman Construction Company donated $25,000 in November. The company is owned by William Rickman, who owns Ocean Downs, a horse racing track on the Eastern Shore near Ocean City.
The Gulfstream Park Racing Association Inc. donated $200,000 in November. Gulfstream Park, a horse racing track in Hallandale Beach, Fla., is owned by The Stronach Group, which also owns Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and Laurel Park. The Stronach Group teamed up with Caesars as in investor in the proposal to build the Baltimore casino.
The companies did not return calls seeking comment.
Slot machine licenses are decided by a seven-member state commission, whose chairman was appointed by O'Malley. The governor also appointed two other members. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch, who are both Democrats, appointed two members each.
Energy companies also have made big donations to the DGA.
Exelon Corp., which is looking to buy Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, donated $250,000 in the period between Jan. 1 and June 30. The company reported donating another $10,000 in the second half of the reporting period. Of the $250,000 donation, the company said at the time it was supporting the DGA's national energy policy symposium series that was taking place last year across the country.
Although O'Malley initially opposed the company's proposal, he announced in December that his administration had brokered a settlement with Exelon over its proposed $7.9 billion takeover of Constellation, after the company agreed to increase investment in the state from $270 million to more than $1 billion over the next decade. The settlement also includes a $100 credit for BGE ratepayers and provides $60 million for low-to-moderate income residents.
The settlement also would set up a $32 million fund to develop offshore wind as lawmakers consider legislation that stalled last in the last regular legislative session to spur offshore wind development off the coast of Ocean City. The settlement requires approval by the state's Public Service Commission.
The DGA reported raising more than $20 million last year. The Republican Governors Association, which is chaired by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, reported raising $44 million.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)