More on campaign finance brouhaha (UPDATED -- now with more confusion!) | Blogh

Friday, May 6, 2011

More on campaign finance brouhaha (UPDATED -- now with more confusion!)

Posted By on Fri, May 6, 2011 at 12:08 PM

I know, I know -- like eight people care about this thing I blogged about yesterday, in which certain incumbent city councilors accepted contributions that would seem to be in excess of campaign-finance limits they previously supported.

The thing is, those eight people all have blogs too. So I'll keep this going.

Our friends at Early Returns -- who kicked off this story -- noted our blog post yesterday, and added an observation I hadn't pointed out: The people identified as running afoul of the campaign-finance rules -- Bruce Kraus, Patrick Dowd, and Darlene Harris -- have all been critics of the mayor. 

But Ravenstahl's foes, it turns out, are NOT the only ones who have taken contributions that would appear to be problematic.

Campaign-finance records show that Theresa Smith, who represents city council district 2 and who is on friendlier terms with the mayor, received a $2,500 contribution from a PAC affiliated with IBEW Local No. 5 last year. That contribution was made Jan. 7, 2010 -- just days after the ordinance went into effect. Smith, like everyone else on council, voted in favor of the bill's final version in May 2009.

I didn't spot that contribution initially because I was most concerned with the councilors running for re-election this year -- and Smith won't face the voters again until 2013. And as I've said all along, I'm not sure there's a big scandal here: The city ordinance does seem to allow contributors to "double up" on maximum donations, by allowing one for the primary, and one for the general.

In any case, what we now have is at least four city councilors -- one short of a council majority -- who have taken gifts that would seem to exceed the amount specified in the ordinance.  And those councilors are on both sides of whatever factional lines you choose to draw. Hell, Smith is even the part-time employer of Pittsburgh Comet blogger Bram Reichbaum, who posted on the matter and offers some nuanced perspectives in the comments section. 

All of which, I think, strengthens my sense that what is going on here is -- at worst -- good-faith confusion about what the law is intended to permit. 

By the way, stay tuned for further dispatches on campaign fundraising later today.

UPDATE: Further investigation and discussion with Smith suggests things are even more confused than we thought. As I previously reported, Smith's campaign finance report dated its contribution on Jan. 7. But a look at the financial reports made by the donor, IBEW Local 5, suggests that they thought they made the contribution Dec. 28. 

I spoke with Smith, whose memory was understandably a bit hazy on the precise timeline. (This was more than a year ago, after all.) But my suspicion is that the campaign probably didn't deposit the check until January, and recorded the donation as part of its 2010 report, instead of in 2009.

Which raises a not-very-interesting question about when a contribution is "made." Is it when a check is printed? Or when it's actually deposited? Having perused state election law, I don't see any guidance about that question. But I think a strong case can be made that Smith's campaign could -- and should -- have reported this contribution under the 2009 report, rather than the 2010 one. So the city new campaign-finance rules arguably don't apply... though by the same logic you could also argue Smith's 2009 report wasn't entirely complete. (It would have been easy to include the contribution in that report, since annual reports aren't due until the end of January in the following year.)

But this just dovetails with my position from the outset -- which is that the implementation of these rules are murky, and there's a lot of room for good-faith confusion.

For example -- assuming that Smith's $2,500 should be "grandfathered in" as a 2009 gift, does that mean that it doesn't count against future contributions from the same source? Would Smith be permitted to receive another $2,000 from IBEW Local 5 between now and 2013 primary? I honestly don't know, and I'm pretty sure no one else does either.


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