Councilwoman Branch says she feels betrayed; suspect faces up to 15 years by Doug Donovan
The state prosecutor’s office yesterday arrested a Baltimore City Council member’s former campaign treasurer and charged him with stealing from his candidate’s coffers and filing false finance reports with the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Momoh Abu Conteh, 48, of the 2800 block of E. Chase St. was arrested by Baltimore police yesterday at his downtown city government office, where he works as a personnel administrator for the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development. He was being held last night at the Central Booking and Intake Center.
The three-count indictment handed down by a grand jury in Anne Arundel County, where campaign finance reports are filed, charges Conteh with theft, embezzlement and perjury while he served as treasurer to a campaign committee for Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch.
Prosecutors allege that Conteh embezzled $2,000 from the “Supporters of Paula Johnson-Branch Committee” and filed a false campaign report with the Board of Elections in Annapolis. If convicted, Conteh could face maximum penalties of up to $25,000 in fines and up to 15 years in prison.
Conteh, a city employee for five years earning between $57,000 and $80,000, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Branch said yesterday she felt betrayed by Conteh. She described him as an up-and-coming player in the Eastside Democratic Organization with an ambition for elected office. The Eastside organization is a political group headed by state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, the Senate’s majority leader. Branch said McFadden had taken Conteh “under his wing.”
“This is a young man whom we embraced,” said Branch, who represents East Baltimore’s 13th District.
McFadden could not be reached for comment.
The state prosecutor’s office began investigating Conteh after a person whose identity was not revealed complained this year about Branch’s campaign finance reports.
Branch’s campaign reports have been a contentious issue since just before the 2004 general election. Her Green Party challenger, Glenn L. Ross, had tried to get state election officials to remove her from the Nov. 2, 2004, ballot because she had not filed a finance report since August 2003 and owed $1,250 in late fees.
The board decided in October that Branch could remain on the ballot.
Maryland election law prohibits a person from running for or assuming public office if he or she has “failed to file a campaign finance report that is due from, or on behalf of, that individual.” State elections officials say candidates rarely can be held responsible for the reporting lapses of their campaign committees. They contend that the only people who are liable for delinquent filings are a campaign committee’s chairman or treasurer. Candidates cannot serve as their own treasurers.
Ross filed a lawsuit against the state board in November to void Branch’s election. Although Ross ultimately lost the case, the state Court of Appeals ruled in June that his case had merit but that it had to reject the lawsuit because of technicalities.
Branch has blamed Conteh and computer glitches for the reporting problems. Yesterday she said she had repeatedly tried to find Conteh to ask him why he had not followed the law.
“When I caught up with him he said he was going to take care of it,” said Branch, who testified before the grand jury in August. “I couldn’t understand how an individual could … expose me like that. That’s my whole political future at stake. Now I know why he wasn’t filing it.”
Joan L. Floyd, a Green Party candidate for council president last year who was active in supporting the attempt to remove Branch, said the councilwoman bears ultimate responsibility for her committee.
“She needs to answer how in the world that it can be that you can claim to have raised nothing and spent nothing,” Floyd said.
September 7, 2005