In mayor's race, Peduto seeking "clarification" on Lamb contributions

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This will come as little surprise to readers of this space, but City Councilor Bill Peduto has filed a petition with the county Board of Elections, seeking "clarification" on "several ambiguities and irregularities," in rival candidate Michael Lamb's campaign-finance report. But it's unclear whether the move will accomplish anything beyond scoring some political points.

Peduto's filing — a full version of which can be found here — raises some questions noted here nearly three weeks ago. Specifically, the petition argues that instead of setting up a "Lamb for Mayor" committee, Lamb is improperly tapping money from the committee that financed his previous runs for city controller. "At no time did Lamb form a separate political committee and checking account for Mayor," the petition notes, "even though such action is required under ... the City Code."

That may sound like a trifling distinction, but the argument goes to the heart of Lamb's fundraising. Lamb's 2012 annual report — which details money he plans to use for a mayoral campaign — includes more than $60,000 left over from his 2011 run for City Controller. And almost all the money raised in 2012 would be at issue as well: While Peduto says a candidate can transfer money from one campaign to another, he argues that such contributions should be subject to the same $8,000-per-election-cycle limits that govern any other political donation. But Peduto's filing also raises another concern: that Lamb may have voided such limits completely.

I raised this possibility last week: Last year, Lamb loaned $50,000 to his own campaign. The city's campaign-finance rules allow for such self-financing, but if any candidate uses more than $50,000 of his or her own money, then limits for other candidates are either doubled, or lifted entirely — depending on whether the candidate gives advance notice of the intention to go over the $50k limit. But the story is a little more complicated than my previous post suggested.

Last week, I noted that because Lamb's loan had put him at the $50,000 threshold, "Lamb could conceivably loan himself 1 more dollar, and single-handedly blow up these limits entirely." But Peduto's filing argues that Lamb has already exceeded the limit. Lamb's finance reports show that he also contributed $2,000 to his campaign, with a check logged Dec. 21. Lamb's records also show that 10 days later — on New Year's Eve — his campaign returned that two grand, with the note "over contribution limit." (There's also another wrinkle in that before loaning himself $50,000, Lamb paid back a previous $15,000 loan he'd made to his campaign when he was running for controller.)

Such refunds aren't unheard of. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's team, in fact, has similarly logged the return of some campaign money where individual donations exceeded the limits. But the legal question here is: Once you go over the self-financing limit, can you "un-ring the bell"? As I read the city ordinance, there is nothing that grants a 10-day "grace period" if candidates go over the self-financing limit. The ordinance says that campaign contribution limits are lifted "[i]f a candidate ... does, at any time during the election cycle, contribute personal resources in excess of fifty thousand dollars (emphasis mine)."

I spoke to Lamb's campaign about this a couple days ago. Campaign Manager Anne Batchelder contended that by refunding Lamb's additional $2,000, the campaign was firmly at the $50,000 limit, and had no intention of exceeding it. But Peduto's filing sounds less convinced. While it urges that Peduto's team "strongly prefer[s] that the contribution limits ... remain in place for the Primary Election," it adds that "the uncertainty regarding Lamb's excessive personal contributions ... have raised substantial concerns ... as to whether the contribution limits ... will continue to apply."

Peduto's petition is asking the county Board of Elections for a written advisory on those matters. As our friends over at Early Returns note, it's not clear whether the board can or will even do that much, given problems concerning its jurisdiction over city elections.

In any case, the real winner here stands to be Ravenstahl. His two challengers — both of whom are running as good-government reformers — are now engaged in a fracas over ... a good government reform. And given that Ravenstahl has already raised nearly $1 million, guess who who would be best positioned to benefit if the cap on contributions somehow does get lifted? Stay tuned.

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