by Chris Potter
Hoo boy. As I noted last week, District 9 city councilor Ricky Burgess did not file a campaign-finance report by last Friday's deadline.
Now Burgess says he is refusing to file the report as an act of protest. He also intends to file legislation to overturn the city's suddenly controversial campaign-finance reforms, on account of his belief that no one is following them anyway.
Burgess' statement reads as follows:
Councilman Burgess' legislation is a repeal of Council's campaign finance reform law, which was created to limit the influence of money in City of Pittsburgh politics. However, several candidates have purposely and willfully defied this City of Pittsburgh law since its inception. Pittsburgh's Campaign finance law is unenforceable, inconsequential and meaningless. Today, I introduce legislation to eliminate City's useless campaign finance law.
Rev Burgess says, "I supported Pittsburgh's Campaign Finance Reform Law and have followed its rules only to watch others blatantly ignore it. Therefore, I will introduce legislation to eliminate Pittsburgh Campaign Finance Law. Moreover, I have withheld the remainder of my Campaign expense report as an act of protest. Candidates should not be able to pick and choose what laws they obey. It is clear some candidates are ignoring the law to enrich their campaigns and achieve an illegal political advantage."
Burgess' statement is a reaction to an ongoing controversy about how some incumbents -- Bruce Kraus, Patrick Dowd, and Darlene Harris -- have interpreted the campaign-finance law. I'm on record as believing that Kraus and Co.'s position has some legal and logical merit. And I'm not sure we can prove the law is meaningless.
The problem is you can never see the contributions that don't come in. As I noted over the weekend, in the story linked at the beginning of this blog post, who's to say that Patrick Dowd wouldn't have receieved $10,000 -- not a paltry $1,000 -- from deep-pocketed progressive supporter Bill Benter had it not been for the reforms?
And even if you agree that Dowd and the rest are flouting the city's law ... is that a good reason to blow off state campaign-finance reporting deadlines? Even though Burgess actually released a campaign-finance report he was not legally required to file, I've already heard some suspicions that Burgess "must have something to hide." Council candidate Jeff Koch, who is challenging Kraus, has already named Burgess in a press release denouncing alleged campaign-finance scofflaws.
And of course, there's an obvious political dimension here: Burgess is the councilor most closely aligned with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl ... while Harris, Dowd, and Kraus are all being challenged by candidates with obvious mayoral backing.
But in any case, maybe Burgess' bill will force Kraus and the other members of council's progressive majority to spell out their case. Right now, they aren't even trying. Kraus' campaign, for one, released a statement last night responding (sort of) to Koch's attacks -- presumably including the campaign-finance accusations.
I say "presumably" because Kraus doesn't really address the accusations at all -- and because Koch is making other accusations as well. Here's the Kraus statement:
"It's unfortunate, but not unexpected, that with just days left until Election Day Jeff Koch has turned to a strategy of lying to voters with deceptive attacks. He's done it before and he's doing it again. These attacks are false. They are distortions meant to confuse voters about the real issues of this election.
This election is about the direction of our neighborhoods. It is about a record of accomplishment and a vision for the future. Jeff Koch has demonstrated he has neither the record nor the vision.
Elections are not charades or circuses. Jeff Koch's side-show is meant to distract and deceive.
So, while my opponent hides behind the fine print in the shadows of misleading attack, I will continue to knock on the doors in my district talking to voters face to face.
The people of my district know me, they trust me, and have a history with me. They know what's going on."
Well, maybe. But you know, if you're a progressive on council, the campaign-finance story this season should be this: Luke Ravenstahl and his shadowy "Network" of influence peddlers are stepping up their efforts to buy the council it wants. Instead, the story is becoming about whether the progressives on council are hypocrites or not.
UPDATE: And indeed, about an hour after I posted the above, city councilor Bill Peduto's office has indeed offered a response to Burgess' attack -- and to criticism of the reform in general. The text follows below; I'll just add that the statement refers to Burgess trying to waive council rules. At today's council meeting, Burgess sought to put his bill on council's agenda for tomorrow -- ordinarily the bill wouldn't come up until the next Wednesday meeting. But that meeting, of course, would be the day after the May 17 primary. Burgess' procedural move to waive those rules was defeated, with the mayor-friendly bloc in support, and the progressive faction largely against.
"In 2009, City Council passed campaign finance reform legislation -- a reform that was long overdue for the City of Pittsburgh. It is disappointing to learn that Councilman Burgess would bow to the pressure of big money interests and reverse the reforms that Pittsburgh fought so hard to enact. Councilman Burgess' attacks against the law are hollow and wrong. He is simply caving to special interests and working to hide who is funding his campaign. The voters deserve to know who is payrolling this effort before they vote -- and state law requires he tell them.
The City's laws on acceptance and disclosure of contributions follow the federal rules and this was clearly discussed during Council's debate in 2009. This effort to rewrite history and create turmoil for political gain right before an election is being done at the expense of good government and transparency.
It is further regrettable that Councilman Burgess would try to waive the rules of Council and even further take away the public's ability to be heard. I am dismayed that Council Members Lavelle, Dowd and Smith supported the waiver of rules to bring this up for a vote before the public has an opportunity to comment.
The people of Pittsburgh should be vigilant. Those who favor a 'pay to play' government have given their orders and Councilman Burgess is working to deliver a gift for them -- at the public's expense."