Campaign-finance confusion widespread | Slag Heap

Campaign-finance confusion widespread

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Our friends at Early Returns have noted that in city council district 3, Jeff Koch has accused incumbent Bruce Kraus of violating campaign-finance laws ... laws that Kraus himself advocated, and that certain credulous reporters gave him credit for advancing.

As Early Returns notes, in 2010, Kraus reaped more than a half-dozen contributions that might seem, at least at first glance, to run afoul of the city's campaign finance limits. For city council elections, the law caps contributions from political committees at $2,000, and contributions from individuals at $1,000. And last year, Kraus had seven contributors who went above those limits.

What's more, according to my own review of campaign finance records, Kraus ain't the only incumbent to receive such potentially problematic largesse. At least two other incumbents running for re-election have received similarly oversized gifts.

Last September, city council president Darlene Harris took $2,500 from the Western PA Laborers PAC fund, according to campaign finance reports. And in January, District 7 incumbent Patrick Dowd received a $2,000 donation from Dan Booker, a prominent attorney and player in Democratic politics. 

Harris, Dowd, and Kraus all supported the campaign finance legislation, which passed unanimously in a May 5, 2009 vote. You can imagine the cries of "hyprocrisy" that are likely to go up here. 

But I'm not sure that's fair.

Dowd's report, for example, includes a caveat: $1,000 of Booker's money, the report says, is "designated for use in the general election cycle," rather than the pending May 17 primary. And as Early Returns noted, Kraus made a similar statement, sending a letter to the county Elections Department asserting that any money above the contribution limits was earmarked for use "following the current cycle for the primary election."

What does that mean? Well, to borrow from Bill Clinton, it all depends on what your definition of "cycle" is. 

As Koch's camp pointed out to Early Returns, the city ordinance asserts that an election cycle "[b]egins on the day after the general election for the office or seat which the candidate seeks and ends on the day of the next general election for that seat or office."

If that's the defintion that applies, it certainly does sound like a contributor only gets one bite of the apple in a given four-year council term. Which would mean that Kraus et al need to write some checks of their own -- to refund the contributions. 

Except ... the definition of "election cycle" may not really be germane to these contributions. A closer look at the bill and its history suggests a more complicated picture.

In an earlier version of the bill, contributions were indeed limited per election cycle. Early on, the language said this

No person shall make political contributions to a candidate per election cycle that exceeds the following limitation (emphasis added)

Similar language governed contributions from political committees.

But bills are amended, and the final version of the bill has different language, with a different timeframe. The version passed by council and signed by the mayor reads thusly:

No person shall make political contributions to a candidate per covered election cycle that exceeds the following limitation

In this case, the emphasis is NOT added. The bolding and underlining is in the bill itself, and reflects changes made from previous versions. And the effect of those changes, you'll note, is that contributions are regulated according to "covered election," rather than "election cycle."

What difference does that make? Potentially a lot, because the bill contains a separate definition for "covered election." And that definition reads as follows:

"COVERED ELECTION - Every primary, general or special election for City Elected Office."

So to me, that suggests that the dollar limits apply each time the voters show up at the polls -- whether it be for a primary or general election. And a contributor like Booker could cough up $1,000 each time. 

When you look at the full bill, in fact, you'll see that the "election cycle" timeframe is only used to govern a special case -- candidates who finance their own campaigns.  The "election cycle" timeframe isn't used at all with respect to contributions from outside sources. 

So are Kraus and Dowd in the right? You could make a good case, although there is something weird about all this. Booker didn't make two separate contributions -- he made one. Kraus and Dowd are the ones who divided it, and since money is fungible, we'd have to take their word about which dollars got used when.

Essentially, they've set up a committee-within-a-committee -- one for the primary, one for the general. The awkwardness here is pointed up by the fact that I didn't see a similar ass-covering caveat in Darlene Harris' return. So did she run afoul of the campaign-finance law ... just because she didn't put an asterisk on a report?

Matters are complicated further by the fact that, in a one-party town like Pittsburgh, a general election is a forgone conclusion. If Kraus and Co. win in May, they won't need to spend as much money to secure victory in November. It probably wouuld have been more straightforward if the bill had kept the "election cycle" as the effective time frame ... and then doubled the caps on contributions. The end result would be the same -- Daniel Booker would be able to contribute $2,000 to Dowd. But voters would have a better understanding of what the limits actually were.  

In any case, I'm no lawyer, and you should weigh these insights accordingly. Besides, with more campaign finance reports due out tomorrow, I have a feeling we'll be hearing more about this issue in the very near future.

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