WASHINGTON — Michael A. Brown, son of the late Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, pleaded guilty Thursday to the misdemeanor charge of making $4,000 in illegal contributions to Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's 1994 reelection campaign.
In what he described in a prepared statement as a "mistake," Brown, 32, admitted making twice the legal limit of contributions by giving money in the names of three others and then reimbursing the individuals, who were not identified in court papers.
Justice Department prosecutors said the funds for the unlawful contributions were provided to Brown by Nora T. Lum and her husband, Gene Lum, Democratic fund-raisers who earlier pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy to make $50,000 in illegal contributions during the 1994 campaign.
The Lums, who are to be sentenced Sept. 9, conspired to make the illegal contributions through straw contributors to the campaigns of Kennedy and to W. Stuart Price, an unsuccessful Democratic congressional candidate from Oklahoma.
Price allegedly helped the Lums purchase Dynamic Energy Resources Inc., a natural gas pipeline company in Oklahoma. Michael Brown later served on its board of directors.
A spokesman for Kennedy on Thursday reiterated that the senator had no knowledge of the illegal campaign contributions and that he had returned "all the contributions in question."
Brown's actions could have been prosecuted as a felony, but under the plea agreement the government brought only a misdemeanor charge and did not seek any jail time for Brown, who could be sentenced to up to one year in prison.
Raymond N. Hulser, a prosecutor on the Justice Department's campaign finance task force, defended the decision not to seek stiffer charges, citing the small amount of money involved.
"We're looking to do what is right as to his conduct and the amount of money," he said, adding that it was "a very fair and appropriate resolution." Brown's plea and that of the Lums are the first two cases produced by the task force, formed last fall to look into reports of widespread campaign-financing violations during the 1992-96 election cycles.
In setting Brown's sentencing for Nov. 21, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina noted that he would study a probation report on Brown, and that he could be fined up to $100,000 on top of the one-year maximum jail sentence.
The investigation that led to Thursday's guilty plea was initiated by independent counsel Daniel S. Pearson, who was named to examine Ronald Brown's financial dealings.
His probe was expanded to include Michael Brown's campaign activities with the Lums. After Brown's death, that case and other matters were transferred to the Justice Department.
Michael Brown did not speak with reporters after the 19-minute court session, but his lawyer, William W. Taylor III, distributed a statement for him.
Saying he had "taken personal responsibility for a single misdemeanor violation," Brown said he has "fully cooperated" with the court, law enforcement agents and Justice Department prosecutors.
In explaining why the straw donors were not prosecuted or identified, Hulser said it is Justice Department policy to not charge "mere conduits."