Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot’s Unclaimed Property Spoof Raises Questions

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correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Maryland Comptroller’s spokeswoman Susan O’Brien as the spokesperson for Governor Peter Franchot’s campaign. The article has been corrected.

A thick newspaper insert with smiling, polo-shirt-wearing Peter Franchot on the cover landed in more than 150,000 Maryland homes over the weekend, advertising unclaimed property and raising questions among some observers about whether the attention-grabbing marketing was designed to promote his candidacy for governor in the run-up to the primary.

Although the practice ruffled some of Franchot’s competitors in a crowded field for governor, the dispatch is “completely legal,” according to Jared DeMarinis, director of campaign finance for the Maryland State Board of Elections.

The unclaimed property circular never mentions the election, the vote, or that Franchot (D) is running for office. Publication has also been an annual requirement under Maryland law since the mid-1970s.

Franchot has put his face on the cover of the insert for the past decade, drawing inspiration from pop culture to draw attention to what currently amounts to more than $83 million in unclaimed property in the possession of the ‘State.

He posed with a deerstalker hat and pipe as “Sherlock Franchot”, doubled as “Unclaimed Property Brothers” and dressed in a tuxedo with a single rose as “Matchelor”, matching residents with unclaimed property.

But just weeks before Franchot’s name is on the ballot in the July 19 Democratic primary race, this year’s parody of Jake’s ads from State Farm – “Like a good neighbor, Franchot is there” – struck some residents and competitors of Franchot as skirting an ethical line.

“The top two-thirds of the page was indistinguishable from a campaign ad,” said Charles Kenny, a Montgomery County writer and economist who posted about the insert on social media.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a big ad in the Sunday Post.’ And then I realized what it was,” said Dan Goldberg, a Montgomery project manager who also posted about the announcement on Twitter. “And does it cross the line?”

As the fine print at the bottom explains, the nearly 180-page tome lists the more than 83,000 people with unclaimed property in Maryland. It also puts Franchot in front of voters at a critical juncture in a crowded race — at taxpayer expense.

Franchot said in a statement that he doesn’t believe the insert crosses ethical lines and advocates stopping “the antiquated print effort,” though newspapers pushed back.

“We make no apologies that we, more than any other state, seek to reunite people with their unclaimed property,” he said.

But the timing and content of the announcement sparked concern that spread across social media, including a private Facebook page where residents of Franchot’s hometown of Takoma Park suggested it seemed unethical, and on Twitter, where Kenny originally posted.

“The large vanity photo on the cover, along with the fact that Franchot used his name instead of State Farm in the publicity copy at the top, pretty clearly suggests that Franchot was more about selling than helping the Marylanders,” said Kenny, a Democrat who has not chosen a candidate in the race.

The print ads will go to another 200,000 homes by the end of next week, reaching a total of 360,000 homes statewide. (There is also a YouTube video and an interactive website to search for lost property records.)

One of Franchot’s opponents, former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, called the insert “unethical” in a Facebook post and said Franchot’s campaign should reimburse the taxpayers.

Another opponent, former US Labor Secretary Tom Perez, said: “It just doesn’t pass the smell test. “Good neighbours” do not misuse taxpayers’ money to fund shameless self-promotion. »

And a third, author and former nonprofit leader Wes Moore, called it “nothing more than corruption”, adding that Franchot “must reimburse the citizens he claims to serve”.

“This ad contains 75% of Peter Franchot’s name and face and possibly 25% unclaimed property information,” Moore’s spokesman Brian Jones said. “The biggest font on the page is Peter Franchot’s name, because it’s always about him.”

Comptroller staff called the accusations an election-year antics and a misrepresentation of his responsibilities, adding that “Comptroller Franchot makes no apologies” for successfully marketing an otherwise tedious list of names.

“This year’s unclaimed property theme is no different than any other year where we borrow from pop culture to bring attention to Maryland’s Unclaimed Property Fund,” said Susan O’Brien, director communications from Franchot, in an e-mail.

“It’s funny, it’s self-deprecating, and more importantly, it achieves its purpose: to bring Marylanders’ attention to the existence of this $2 billion fund,” he said. she stated. “Anyone who claims this is a departure from the last decade of catchy unclaimed property themes is deliberately misrepresenting the facts or willfully ignoring this agency’s statutory responsibilities,” she said.

DeMarinis, the state’s campaign finance expert, said the law treats this the same as the mail lawmakers send to voters announcing their accomplishments during the legislative session.

Once before, Democrats in Maryland drew a clear line on when official publications cannot also serve as marketing for candidates. Prior to the 2006 election, Democrats in the General Assembly amended the budget to ban the then government. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) to use any state money for public service announcements featuring his face.

The ban was not included in any subsequent budget and effectively only lasted a year, according to Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), outgoing chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

One of Franchot’s predecessors tried to end unclaimed property ads in 2002, arguing that it was an unnecessary expense to run ads in newspapers across the state. The legislation failed amid opposition from Maryland newspapers.

The Washington Post is the largest financial beneficiary of unclaimed real estate listings this year, according to figures from the Comptroller’s Office. Of the $275,000 to print and distribute the ads, more than $220,000 went to the Post’s mailing service, which is run separately from the newsroom.

The ads were also successful in reuniting people with goods, the comptroller’s office said. In fiscal year 2021, the Comptroller’s Office processed 33,746 requests totaling more than $61 million. The comptroller’s office said calls were still increasing after newspaper inserts, and as of Thursday they said they had not filed any citizen complaints on the subject of “Like a good neighbour.”

Alisa Tang contributed to this report.

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