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Code of Judicial Conduct silent on party for Judge-Elect Asti

The party Tuesday night is billed as a Victory Celebration for Alison L. Asti, judge-elect to the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. It is also a fundraiser, with tickets starting at $150 per person and topping out at $1,000 for a VIP sponsorship.

Such an event is not barred by Maryland law, but a post-election fundraising soiree is unusual for a state judicial candidate. Asti and party organizers are adamant, however, that guests will not be buying influence over a judge 13 days before she is sworn in.

“State and local officials are expected to treat people fairly and equally, without regard to political donations or any other factor which might bias them,” Asti wrote in an e-mail. “I am confident that I will live up to the expectations of the almost 100,000 citizens who voted for me.”

Arthur M. Frank, chairman of the party’s host committee, underscored the point.

“Every lawyer will tell you that they don’t get treated any differently whether they give the judge any money or not,” Frank said. “Judges are sworn to be impartial and that’s what Judge-elect Asti will be.”

The Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct has no rules regarding activities of judges-elect. Sitting judges are considered candidates for two years prior to a general election, when fundraising is allowed.

Cynthia Gray, director of the American Judicature Society’s Center for Judicial Ethics, said the state’s code also does not have “a limit on personal solicitation of funds,” unlike codes in other states. Gray, who is based in Chicago, added she was not familiar with Maryland’s election laws.

“The event may create problems in particular cases after she takes the bench but there is not enough information to tell at this point,” Gray wrote in an e-mail. “If Maryland citizens do not like the kind of appearances campaign fund-raising by judges creates, there are other alternatives such as public financing and appointments.”

Asti, a former president of the Maryland State Bar Association and past chairwoman of The Daily Record’s independent Editorial Advisory Board, took second place in a three-way race for two seats, defeating Judge Ronald H. Jarashow by 20,000 votes. Judge Laura S. Kiessling was the top vote-getter.

The election literally came at a price for Asti, however. Campaign finance records showed she lent her campaign $151,000, none of which had been paid back as of Nov. 22, when the most recent report was filed. The campaign had more than $9,000 on hand as of last month.

Asti’s campaign received around $60,000 in contributions throughout the election cycle.

Sitting judges Jarashow and Kiessling, running as the Arundel Judges Slate, received more than $177,000 in contributions during the election cycle, according to the campaign finance reports. The slate had more than $17,000 on hand and obligations totaling more than $19,000 as of Nov. 23, according to its most recent campaign finance report.

Jarashow also raised nearly $19,000 for a campaign account in his own name and has $7,200 on hand as of Nov. 23, according to campaign finance reports. He also lent his campaign $20,000 that has not been paid back yet.

Kiessling raised more than $30,000 for a campaign account in her own name and had more than $4,000 on hand as of Nov. 23, according to campaign finance reports. She did not owe the campaign any money.

Frank, in a letter accompanying the party’s flier, wrote that the sitting judges “had a lot of fundraisers and outspent [Asti] by extraordinary amounts.”

“I am hoping we could all help recoup just some of the money she lent her campaign as she will be unable to raise additional contributions after she is sworn-in in a few weeks,” Frank wrote.

Asti, in an e-mail, noted that the judges raised their money while on the bench “from the lawyers who appear before them.”

“My event is a Victory Celebration and ‘thank you’ to my many supporters…including the prominent members of the bar and community on my Host Committee,” she wrote. “The funds are being raised by my Host Committee and not me. Hopefully, they will raise enough to defray the costs of the event. If they raise additional funds to help cover a portion of my campaign costs, that is a bonus.”

Frank, a Baltimore solo practitioner who has been involved in previous judicial election campaigns and was a candidate himself in Baltimore County four years ago, could recall one other event similar to Asti’s. In 2000, then-Baltimore County District Court Judge Robert N. Dugan celebrated his victory over a sitting circuit court judge with a party paid for by contributions his campaign received after the election. Frank said tickets were not sold to the event.

H. Mark Stichel, the longtime chairman of the Baltimore City Sitting Judges Committee Slate, recalled sitting judges having “small events” after an election but did not remember if money from the campaigns or judges themselves was used.

“No one paid to attend,” said Stichel, of Gohn, Hankey & Stichel LLP in Baltimore.

William C. Davis, chairman of the Committee to Retain Sitting Judges of Montgomery County Maryland PAC Inc., also had not heard of a judicial candidate holding an event like Asti’s. But Davis said that in political campaigns, post-election debt retirement fundraising is not uncommon.

“There are some issues any time judges have to participate in the political process,” said Davis, a principal with Offit Kurman P.A. in Bethesda. “It does raise some concerns, but who else are judges going to raise money from, other than lawyers?”

Pre-election fliers

Asti’s event marks another turn in the state’s only contested judicial general election. In the days before the election, Frank issued a cease and desist letter on behalf of Asti to a month-old political action committee that distributed fliers accusing Asti of “taking advantage of Maryland taxpayers” when she worked for the Maryland Stadium Authority, an allegation Asti strongly denied.

Asti’s campaign raised controversy with an Election Day flier of its own, which employed the same yellow-and-black color scheme as the sitting judges’ literature but urged voters to elect Asti and Kiessling.

Asti said the flier was meant as her endorsement of Kiessling, which is permitted under the Code of Judicial Conduct. Others, including Jarashow, saw it as a clear attempt to mislead voters into thinking that she and Kiessling were running as a slate.

Asked if Asti’s actions are getting more attention because of how the election played out, Frank replied in an e-mail: “I think the only closer scrutiny Alison is actually getting is coming from only a few individuals making ‘loud noises’ that are bitter their friend lost his seat.”

Asti declined to comment on the motivations of others.

“I have been complimented on my professional, positive and upbeat campaign. I ran on my credentials and never once criticized my opponents,” Asti wrote in an e-mail. “If the campaign was contentious, it was on my opponents’ side only.”