Jim Smith’s Victory Slate is fraught with financial irregularities
EXCLUSIVE: Amended campaign reports reveal questionable payments to treasurer Chris McCollum, whose poor management of Baltimore County’s Ag Center sparked two inspector general investigations
Above: Chris McCollum, right, has been busily amending finance reports for the slate committee established by former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith, left.
Wildly fluctuating bank balances, a once lost – now found – $100,000 transfer from 2015, and more than $26,000 of previously undisclosed payments made to the campaign treasurer are among the dozen amendments made recently to James T. Smith Jr.’s Victory Slate campaign reports.
Six years of corrected financial accounting submitted to the Maryland Board of Elections show that the Baltimore County Victory Slate has operated without accountability for years under Smith and treasurer, William “Chris” McCollum.
Now 79, Smith remains one of the most influential powerbrokers in state Democratic Party circles.
A former judge, two-term Baltimore County executive, Maryland secretary of transportation and close advisor to now-jailed ex-Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, Smith controls the slate committee that’s dispensed more than $525,000 in campaign funds to favored candidates since 2015.
Some of the slate’s activities have drawn media attention. In 2016, The Brew revealed that the Victory Slate made a last-minute $100,000 loan to Pugh that paved the way for her narrow victory over Sheila Dixon in the Democratic Party primary.
Because Pugh was not a member of the Victory Slate, the loan was illegal, and the Maryland State Prosecutor eventually slapped the group with a $3,000 civil fine. But by that time, Smith had effectively transferred his political clout from the county to the city, becoming Pugh’s chief of strategic alliances. (He left the cabinet post in 2019 shortly before Pugh resigned in disgrace.)
In 2018, the Victory Slate embarked on an attack ad campaign against Jim Brochin, who was running as a reform candidate for Baltimore County executive.
Mailers sent out to voters by the slate, denouncing Brochin as a pawn of the National Rifle Association, did not propel their preferred candidate, Vicki Almond, to the finish line. Instead, they took votes away from Brochin, who lost by 17 votes (out of 87,000 cast) to Johnny Olszewski Jr. in the Democratic Party primary.
BACKGROUND: Top Pugh official Jim Smith blew through $300,000 supporting Vicki Almond (9/12/2018)
With a few thousand dollars left in its bank account, the Victory Slate’s role in county politics may be nearing its end. But the blizzard of retroactive cash additions and subtractions made by treasurer McCollum raises questions about how its $525,000 cash hoard was actually spent.
Currently a $135,000-a-year senior administrator at the Baltimore County Department of Economic and Workforce Development, McCollum was recently cited for wasteful spending when he ran the county’s Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park (Ag Center).
Among the findings of two reports issued by Inspector General Kelly Madigan:
• That he purchased more than $1 million in unneeded farm equipment under a “Produce for the People” program initiated by Smith’s successor, the late county executive Kevin Kamenetz. The program was intended to supply fresh vegetables to soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but few crops ever materialized, according to the IG report.
• That he used county procurement cards to make $30,000 in unauthorized purchases, including clothes, women’s boots and a $638 mechanical brush device advertised as “the best boot cleaner in the world.”
Attempts to reach McCollum and Smith were unsuccessful. They have not responded to requests for interviews and have not answered questions sent by The Brew regarding the Victory Slate’s finances.
McCollum’s revised campaign reports came after a reporter questioned money transfers between Smith’s “Friends of Jim Smith” fund and the Victory Slate candidate’s account, which Smith had deployed for years to put other Democratic Party candidates into office.
In addition to Pugh, the slate’s success stories include bankrolling Cathy A. Bevins’ election as 6th District county councilwoman in 2010. (Bevins’ relationship with McCollum has remainstight, with McCollum serving as both her treasurer and campaign manager.)
When Smith ended any personal aspirations for higher elective office, he transferred $97,664.97 from his Friends account, but it failed to show up in the Victory Slate’s records.
A reporter’s inquiry about the missing cash with the State Board of Elections triggered McCollum not only to go back and presumably find the missing cash, but it also prompted him to amend all 2014 through 2019 campaign finance reports – twice.
The push to find the missing cash also shook loose years of payments McCollum made to himself as a Victory Slate consultant – over $26,000 in compensation he did not reveal until he submitted the amended reports this past January.
Until the amendments exposed the missing payments, McCollum had disclosed a single $2,500 check for consulting fees charged to the slate, along with a $263 expenditure for “office rent.”
McCollum collected $30,464 as a Victory Slate consultant while serving as its treasurer.
The address listed as the office is a county government building: specifically, the Ag Center where he had been director since 2010, appointed to the position by Jim Smith.
In the slate’s most recent filings, McCollum disclosed payments of $4,250 to himself in 2019 and 2020.
In all, he says he collected $30,464 as a Victory Slate consultant while serving as its treasurer.
In a series of amended reports filed last September, McCollum boosted the fund’s reported bank balances without explanation.
For example, the original finance report, ending January 21, 2015, reported a bank balance of $476,380.81. But the amended report now said the balance on that date was actually $574,074.79 – or $97,693.98 more.
The influx of new funds was almost exactly the amount of the previously missing Friends transfer.
The spontaneous appearance of the cash was not the only curious aspect of McCollum’s accounting, The Brew found.
Payments to a longtime supplier of campaign material, Creative Print Group of Catonsville, waxed and waned as McCollum submitted new amended reports to the elections board.
In one instance, two payments to the print shop – one for $3,725.86 and another for $3,274.14 for a total of $7,000 – were deleted by McCollum. In the same report, McCollum added a $7,000 payment to himself, which he had failed to list in his original report.
In another case, McCollum made two identical payments – each for $32,998 – to the same print shop. The $65,996 increase would not be known until the most recent round of amendments.
Curiously, the longtime resident agent of Creative Print Group is Michael Paul Smith, son of Jim Smith and partner of the Towson law firm, Smith, Gildea & Schmidt.
In his amendments, McCollum reported paying more than $250,000 to the print shop on behalf of the Victory Slate. McCollum and Michael Smith did not respond to questions about these seemingly outsized costs.
• McCollum amended a 2016 report, adding a $999 transfer of funds by the Victory Slate to former Governor Martin O’Malley’s presidential fund. A review of the O’Malley for President campaign in Federal Elections Commission records does not show that the transfer was ever received.
• McCollum zeroed out a $500 payment made in 2016 by the Victory Slate to Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello. A review of Costello’s campaign records shows the cash was indeed welcomed – and not returned – by his campaign in 2016 or at any other time.
• McCollum reported that the Victory Slate transferred $11,000 to “Friends of Cathy Bevins” via three checks between August and December 2015. The Bevins campaign, however, said it received only one $7,000 check from the Victory Slate, which arrived months earlier in January 2015.
And who has been the Middle River councilwoman’s campaign treasurer and close confidant?
Chris McCollum, who before the Covid pandemic was known to spend hours at her council offices in Towson.
Ethics Statement Amended
For more than a year, a reporter has tried to get answers about the missing $97,000 “Friends” transfer.
Jared DeMarinis, director of campaign finance at the Maryland Elections Board, assured the reporter that his agency would look into the matter.
“Rather than do it piecemeal, we are going to do a holistic review of the accounts,” DeMarinis said, explaining that the examination would include both the Friends and the Victory Slate reports.
Since then, DeMarinis has declined to address any aspect of his review, even after McCollum submitted the more than a dozen amendments to prior Victory Slate reports.
McCollum, meanwhile, amended his 2019 Baltimore County financial disclosure statement after The Brew requested the document through a Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) request.
His original filing, dated last September, reported that he received no income outside of his county job.
The amended statement, submitted in early May, admits that he received income from both the Victory Slate and Friends of Cathy Bevins.
Election Board records show that McCollum got $2,250 from the Victory Slate and $20,000 from Friends of Cathy Bevins.
The latter $20,000 payment was sent by McCollum (as Bevins’ campaign treasurer) to McCollum (as Bevins’ campaign manager) via an electronic check earmarked to a Baltimore City address of a friend.
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