The Philadelphia Board of Ethics has determined that the campaigns of Seth Williams and Dan McCaffery, two leading district attorney candidates, were in violation of campaign finance laws, with just one week until the May 19 primary election.
Similar campaign finance issues relating to both campaigns have been extensively detailed by The Bulletin in previous investigative articles.
The Committee to Elect Seth Williams, along with the candidate himself and his treasurer, Vincent DeFino, entered into an agreement with the Board of Ethics that addresses reporting errors in the committee’s, and Mr. Williams’, 2008 Cycle 7 annual campaign finance reports. The Williams campaign will pay a $3,750 fine and file amended campaign finance reports.
At issue were 10 expenditures in Mr. Williams’ report that were reported twice and one that was reported three times. Additionally, the Williams Committee misreported expenditures to Sonita Williams, the candidate’s wife, that were described as "reimbursements," but should have been reported as "reimbursement to Seth and Sonita Williams for expenses incurred by Seth Williams," according to the Board of Ethics.
With regard to the McCaffery campaign, the Ethics Board filed a petition in Common Pleas Court to enforce what it considers "deliberate" violations of the city’s campaign finance laws. The petition alleges the campaign accepted more than the $100,000 aggregate political action committee (PAC) limit in 2008, and subsequently misstated the amount of money the campaign actually received from Mr. McCaffery’s law firm’s PAC, to hide the excess PAC contributions from the public.
The PAC, known as the Pennsylvania Good Government Fund, has been the focus of questions concerning its practice of reimbursing law firm partners for contributions made on behalf of the PAC, a practice thought by many political observers to be illegal. Mr. McCaffery is the treasurer of the PAC.
The PAC contributed $10,500 to the McCaffery campaign on Dec. 30, 2008, an amount that would have placed the campaign over the $100,000 threshold by $3,100. According to the Board of Ethics findings, the chairman of the Good Government Fund, also a partner at the Friedman Schuman firm, had allocated $7,400 of the $10,500 for 2008 and the remainder for the 2009 campaign cycle.
The $10,500 contribution was written as a single check.
The McCaffery campaign said the check was allocated in an attempt to avoid a violation of the PAC donation limits. However, the Ethics Board maintains no legal basis exists for artificially allocating portions of a single contribution check into different calendar years.
Josh Morrow, campaign spokesman for the McCaffery campaign, said there was no deliberate intention of violating any ethics laws.
"Let’s put this in context. We are talking about $3,100 out of $500,000 raised and spent in a short period of time. There was obviously no intention of violating any ethics law. In fact, we were very conscious of it," Mr. Morrow said.
"We could have returned the $3,100 and had them (the PAC) reissue the check the next day. Instead, we choose to handle it this way," he added.
Mr. Morrow said the idea the McCaffery campaign was trying to hide something was "absurd," since all of the campaign documents were public.
"If this is the way the Ethics Board wants to handle it, so be it. We accept that," Mr. Morrow stated. "We will let the court decide. Given how truly ineffective the Board of Ethics has been in the past, we applaud Shane Creamer for being more proactive."
Mr. Creamer is the executive director of the Ethics Board, but according to published reports, he was hired, in part, by Dan McElhatton, another candidate in the D.A.’s race.
Chris Freind can be reached at [email protected]