Chris McCollum in court today to face campaign embezzlement charges
UPDATE: Former Baltimore County official pleads guilty to felony theft and perjury. Admits stealing more than $140,000 from former Councilwoman Cathy Bevins’ political campaign and a slate committee controlled by former County Executive Jim Smith.
Above: Once the best of friends, Chris McCollum was charged with stealing $111,000 from Cathy Bevin’s campaign. (Facebook, 2020)
The fate of a once high-flying Baltimore County political operative, the subject of many Brew investigative stories, should be partly settled today in a Towson courtroom.
William Christopher “Chris” McCollum, 52, was charged in February by State Prosecutor Charlton T. Howard III with felony theft, embezzlement and perjury involving two campaign committee accounts he controlled.
McCollum is expected to plead guilty this morning before Circuit Court Judge Robert E. Cahill Jr., with a statement of facts read into the record.
Sentencing will come at a future hearing set by the judge.
11:30 AM UPDATE: McCollum pleaded guilty to felony theft and perjury, and his lawyer said he has paid $125,000 in restitution that will be returned to the two campaign committees. [Link to Statement of Facts]
Sentencing will be held on July 31. Deputy State Prosecutor Sarah R. David told the court today she will recommend a year in the County Detention Center, while McCollum’s lawyer, David Irwin, will ask for work release.
Former Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, from whose campaign McCollum stole $110,015, told The Brew, “I am very happy with the case made by the prosecutor.” Asked if she was aware of the embezzlement over a seven-year period, she said, “Absolutely not.”
Under state guidelines, McCollum faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a minimum of probation without judgment with no jail time.
McCollum is accused of stealing over $140,000 from two campaign committees – Friends of Cathy Bevins, run on behalf of the former Middle River councilwoman, and the Baltimore County Victory Slate, controlled by former County Executive James T. Smith Jr.
McCollum served as the treasurer of both entities while retaining executive positions in Baltimore County government – first as director of the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park (popularly known as the Ag Center) and then as acting director of the Department of Economic and Workforce Development.
Friends in High Places
Well-known in Democratic Party circles, McCollum first came to public attention in 2021 through two reports (here and here) of wasteful spending at the Ag Center by County Inspector General Kelly Madigan.
The reports were met with ferocious blowback by local electeds.
Councilwoman Bevins, then a close friend of McCollum’s, and Council Chairman Julian Jones berated Madigan at a public hearing, with Jones saying Madigan was “scaring” county employees and Bevins asserting that Madigan didn’t understand “the policies and procedures that happen here.”
County Executive Johnny Olszewski attempted through legislation to curb Madigan’s powers to investigate government corruption. He withdrew the legislation only after a public outcry.
After The Brew disclosed financial irregularities in reports McCullom submitted to the State Board of Elections – information that formed the basis of a number of the state prosecutor’s charges – the administration announced that he would leave his $137,000-a-year county job.
• Jim Smith’s Victory Slate is fraught with financial irregularities (5/19/21)
• State prosecutor has opened an investigation into Jim Smith’s Victory Slate (6//1/21)
McCollum resigned on July 2, 2021, but he remained on the county’s payroll – receiving full pay and benefits – under a secret agreement signed by Olszewski’s chief administrative officer, Stacy L. Rodgers.
After the deal was revealed in the press, the payments stopped. Just prior to that, Bevins announced that she wouldn’t be running for a fourth term in office.
The state prosecutor accused McCollum of embezzling $110,014.89 from the Bevins campaign committee between 2015 and 2020.
He did this several ways: by diverting checks from donors to his personal bank account, by using the committee’s American Express account to pay his personal Amex charges, and by writing out checks to phantom vendors that he cashed, according to the charging document.
He is also accused of using campaign funds to travel to North Carolina, Florida and Iceland and to take a trip with “a romantic partner” to Puerto Rico.
As Bevins’ campaign treasurer, he did not disclose these expenditures on the reports he filed with the State Board of Elections, which he signed under the penalties of perjury, Howard says.
Raiding Jim Smith’s Slate
McCollum is accused of engaging in the same illegal schemes as treasurer of the Baltimore County Victory Slate.
That entity was set up by County Executive Jim Smith in 2006 as a vehicle to bankroll Democratic Party incumbents and candidates running for public office in and around Baltimore County.
McCollum is accused of embezzling more than $31,000 from the fund, mostly by depositing checks made out to the slate in his personal bank account. He also allegedly cashed checks he wrote out to imaginary vendors like “PL LLC” and “NGP.”
The Victory Slate spent more than $700,000 on slate candidates in recent elections, financially backing Bevins and other entrenched Democrats like Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, County Council Chairman Julian Jones, County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello and Vicki Almond’s losing bid for county executive in 2018.
Most famously, the Victory Slate made a last-minute $100,000 loan to Catherine Pugh that was widely credited with helping Pugh defeat Sheila Dixon in the 2016 Democratic primary for Baltimore mayor. (The Pugh loan was later ruled illegal, and the Victory Slate fined $3,000.)
McCollum was the treasurer during those years, first installed by Smith in 2014. He’s still listed as treasurer of the Victory Slate, which last reported a bank balance of $3,361.