Nonprofit cash lined with ties to Prince George’s exec Baker

Many donors play key roles in county

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Since funding a lavish half-million-dollar party to celebrate the election of Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III about 18 months ago, officials at the Bowie-based Path to Greatness have continued to raise thousands of dollars from donors while counting Mr. Baker’s wife as a trustee, an arrangement that critics say opens up another avenue for special interests to curry favor with his administration.

Under Internal Revenue Service rules, such nonprofit organizations are not required to make public the names of donors, though officials did so in response to a request by The Washington Times. The list reveals dozens of contributors, including several with close ties to the Prince George's government.

Campaign finance specialists say that while legal, contributions to Path to Greatness could give special interests a way to win favor with Mr. Baker by donating in excess of what they could give publicly to his campaign. As a candidate, Mr. Baker vowed to tackle the “pay to play” culture that sent his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson, to federal prison on conviction of graft.

“It very clearly can become a means for those who want to curry favor with an elected official to provide funding, which can sometimes further the political ambitions of the politician or help take care of their family and friends,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center.

Under federal law, lobbying reforms created in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal mandate disclosure of federal lobbyist donations to charities tied to a lawmaker. But there is no such requirement under Maryland election law, leaving it up to nonprofit groups to police themselves and decide how much, if any, information about funding sources to make public. Path to Greatness officials have been transparent, providing significant IRS documentation and donor lists in response to requests from The Times.

Among all of the records, however, perhaps the clearest connection between Path to Greatness and Mr. Baker’s administration is plainly on the group’s website, which lists Mr. Baker’s wife, Christa Beverly, as a member of the board of trustees and co-founder of Path to Greatness. The website also includes a more than 600-word biography of Mr. Baker’s wife, at one point referring to her as “the wife and best-friend of Prince George’s County’s new County Executive.”

Still, through a spokesman, Mr. Baker said he has no “insight or direct connection” to the organization: “Mr. Baker is not directly involved with the Path to Greatness organization,” Prince George’s spokesman Barry Hudson wrote in an email to The Times. “His wife is a member of the board of directors, but Mr. Baker does not have any involvement in how and where donations come from. His daughter is listed on the site as an intern (non-paid), however, she accepted another internship and never worked as an intern at the Path to Greatness.”

Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a watchdog group, isn’t convinced: “From all indications, this organization is very closely connected to County Executive Baker; in fact, it’s hard to imagine a less-connected group,” he said.

The organization is run from a Bowie property owned by Michelle Haywood and her husband, Chris Lawson, both of whom have close political ties to Mr. Baker. Mr. Lawson led Mr. Baker’s 2006 campaign, and Path to Greatness is registered under Mr. Lawson’s name. Ms. Haywood is executive director of Path to Greatness.

Ms. Haywood said in an interview that Prince George’s Path to Greatness is a so-called 501(c)(4) tax-exempt nonprofit organization. Such groups cannot be set up to help win an election for a politician but can cover inaugural expenses. Separately, she filed paperwork with the IRS to run a separate 501(c)(3) charitable organization called Path to Greatness, which would allow donors to take tax deductions for contributions made for charitable purposes. That application is pending.

She described Mr. Baker’s wife as a friend who always has been interested in helping children in poverty. Ms. Haywood said neither Mr. Baker’s wife nor she receives compensation. In addition, in a message posted on the group’s website, Ms. Haywood wrote that the group aims to “support and seek to build organizations dedicated to education, youth and health and safety.”

Appointees

A few months into his first term, Mr. Baker announced two new appointees to the board of commissioners overseeing the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

“Christopher Lawson and Melanie Hartwig-Davis are incredible and experienced leaders who will serve the citizens well as representatives to the WSSC board,” Mr. Baker said at the time.

Ms. Hartwig-Davis’ name also appears on the list of donors provided by the group. Mr. Baker said neither appointment had anything to do with support provided by Mr. Lawson or by Ms. Hartwig-Davis to the organization. Ms. Haywood agreed, saying she never discussed the donations with Mr. Baker or his wife.

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