Solving the mayor's 'Russian problem'
The 25-year-old, who says she is studying English as a second language at Johns Hopkins University and Baltimore Community College, is unaware of the mini-controversy swirling for the past three months around her $7,000 in campaign contributions to Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. A web site has dubbed her Rawlings-Blake's "Russian problem," while a blogger has questioned why the media refuses to look into her identity.
So, on a rainy weekday afternoon, a newspaper reporter looks her up and pays a visit.
Nazarenko says she loves the United States - her parents want her to come back, but she has dreamed of living here since she was in 8th grade. Wearing short, blue shorts and a small tank top, she curls up on a white leather sofa and looks through printouts from Baltileaks.org, the muckraking site which has pulled pictures from her forgotten Myspace page, printed her old address, and linked to her Facebook friends' pages in trying to determine her identity and motives.
Clearly unnerved, she asks why people would care that she gave money. Often, a reporter explains, people who give large amounts of money - particularly the maximum contribution - have political interests that they are trying to advance, or at least that's what people suspect.
Nazarenko said she made the donations because she wanted to be part of the American political process. "I know a lot of people here do that," she said. "I'm just trying to be in American culture."
"I have plans for the future," she continues, "I want to go to the University of Maryland, and I think it's going to help me," she says of her contributions. "I have a friend, he's been here eight months, and he thinks it's going to help me enroll."
[Nazarenko seen at right in this picture from 2008 that was posted to her Myspace space and circulated in an attempt to discern her identity]
But how did she come up with $7,000, the reporter asks? She gave $3,000 to O'Malley in October, and $4,000 - the maximum amount for an individual in an election cycle - to Rawlings-Blake in January. Does she come from a wealthy family? She says her parents do well. The reporter asks what they do. She says her mother is an accountant. Her father works for Severstal. There's a language barrier issue, but she indicates he's a manager.
Severstal is the former Russian owner of the Sparrow’s Point steel mill, sold recently as part of a $1.2 billion transaction. The company is in federal court with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the extent to which it’s required to look for and clean up contamination in the waters and neighborhoods around Sparrows Point under a 1989 consent order its predecessor, Bethlehem Steel, signed with the state and federal agencies. The dispute was argued in U.S. District Court in Baltimore earlier this year, and a ruling is pending.
The steel mill at Sparrows Point also uses in its processes treated wastewater from Baltimore city’s Back River wastewater treatment plant. Nazarenko describes her father's role as that of a "manager."
It's an intriguing connection. Of course, there's no indication of surreptitious giving by anyone else connected to Severstal, as other special interests gave tens of thousands through various corporations (and completely in accordance with campaign finance rules). For example, during a two week period during which Nazarenko sent her check, homebuilder Stavrou Associates was giving O'Malley $36,000 through 10 different LLCs, records show. Was it her foreign-sounding name that attracted scrutiny? Her youth? Or just the stubborn inability over the course of months by bloggers to pin down any explanation?
Nazarenko seems genuinely preplexed by all this, and offers a simple explanation: she said her father gave her the money with the idea that the cash support and subsequent "thank you" letters the elected officials send to top donors would show that she is supporting her new state and country. "A lot of Americans do donations," she says.
Colleen Martin-Lauer, who coordinates fundraising for Rawlings-Blake and O'Malley, said Nazarenko's check came in among a flood of other donations for a January event at the Hippodrome Theater and that there was no obvious reason to red-flag Nazarenko's contribution. She said the donation was facilitated by a middleman fundraiser, who she declined to immediately identify.
She says her firm looked into the donations after Baltileaks - which did not know Nazarenko's immigration status - noted the rules on foreign giving. Foreign nationals are prohibited from making any contributions or expenditures in connection with American elections, though "green card" holders may contribute.
"The check went through regular vetting," Martin-Lauer said. "We look at a bunch of stuff, but we don't really look at citizenship. Nothing popped up. When we realized she was not an American, both campaigns returned the money."
[Nazarenko declined to confirm her immigration status.]
Baltileaks published two broad assumptions about Nazarenko with little to base it on - first, that because she was Russian she was connected to Severstal, and secondly, that she was not an American citizen. Dangerous stuff, and yet, they were right. Sort of.
Martin-Lauer said both checks were returned April 11th, though Nazarenko, who has since changed addresses, doesn't seem aware.
In Russia, Nazarenko studied tourism. Now, she has hopes of studying international relations. In her apartment are teddy bears from FAO Schwarz, and a replica of the Statute of Liberty sits on a bookcase. Her apartment offers sweeping views of the Bromo Seltzer tower and peeks into Camden Yards.
She doesn't know it, but for the past month she's been the source of much scrutiny. She just wants to go to school, she says.
"Am I going to get in trouble?" she asks.
[This post was updated to reflect a change in the fifth-to-last paragraph]