Monday, August 22, 2011

Campaign High Finance...

**This post has been updated to reflect new information obtained from the governor's office.**

Councilor Rivera (Facebook)
It is always hard to measure what impact scandals will have on a politician.  Nobody seemed to care that Rick Perry received a $25,000 donation from Ken Lay and an Enron executive got a seat on the Utility Commission in Texas.  Likewise, prognosticators assessments notwithstanding, it is hard to know exactly what impact Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera's failure to file his campaign finance disclosure forms will have.  Part of the problem is that there is an open seat and well-known names win.  Another complicating factor is that Rivera courts, more than virtually any at-large candidate has in recent memory, a segment of the electorate that has historically low voter participation rates.

However, the entire affair has spurred us to investigate, not Rivera's doings, but rather the municipal campaign financing in general.  As we have said for years, and especially during the Biomass debate, the same pool of donors tend to give to anybody running for office in Springfield.  However, what about the laws of disclosure themselves?  How have they changed and what impact do they have?  Just as important, what is the record of Springfield candidates generally?

McCormack Bldg, Boston (Wikipedia)
Campaign finance laws are administered by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.  That agency, headquartered in the McCormack Building next to the State House, enforces campaign finance laws in the commonwealth.  Established in 1973, the office was among many that were established, nationwide, during and after Watergate amid concerns about the influence of money in politics.  While those concerns have erupted once more after Citizens United v. FEC and the Supreme Court's striking of a Arizona Public Financing Law, disclosure requirements, which exist in most states, remain a crucial, if shaky, foundation of efforts to clean up elections.

Chapter 55 of the Massachusetts General Laws, and nominally 55c, the commonwealth's emaciated public financing law, are the laws that OCPF enforces.  However, the office is also the "depository" venue for most candidates to file their fund raising, expenditures and other reports.  Under current law, all candidates for State Office, including the legislature, governors council and the executive constitutional officials, must file with OCPF. 

However, before January 1, 2010 only mayoral candidates and city councilors running for at-large seats in the commonwealth's five largest cities needed to file with OCPF directly.  Even if you were not required to file with the state, candidates raising money for their campaigns for any municipal office had to file reports with their town or city's clerk, or in the case of Springfield, the Election Commission.  Just as Springfield undertook its first ward-based elections in decades, whose candidates needed to file only with City Hall, the commonwealth's municipal campaign finance law received a major shake-up

Gov. Deval Patrick in 2008 (WMassP&I)
The laws that changed this came about amid scandals, resignations and public pressure.  After former State Senator Dianne Wilkerson was arrested for bribery, Governor Deval Patrick convened a task force to suggest changes to public integrity laws.  Ultimately the legislature and Governor Deval Patrick enacted legislation that would toughen the commonwealth's ethics, lobbying and campaign finance laws.  However, passage of that bill, along with reforms to pensions and transportation were in doubt until Patrick said he would veto an increase in the sales tax unless the reforms reached his desk first.  At the bill signing, Patrick said at the time, "This law demonstrates our firm commitment to governing with integrity, with openness and with the public's interest foremost."

The changes expanded the crop of municipal candidates who needed to file wtih OCPF.  On the first day of 2010less than two months after the last municipal electionmayoral and all city council candidates in Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Lowell, and Cambridge were required to file with OCPF.  Mayoral candidates with populations in excess of 40,000, too must now file with OCPF.   For example, a mayoral candidate in Chicopee needs to file with the Boston-based agency, but city council candidates in that city as well as mayoral candidates in Agawam, do not.

Another notable change, though one mostly irrelevant to Springfield, required that city and town clerks put online the campaign finance reports candidates file locally. All of the above revisions to campaign finance law were contained in Chapter 28 of the Acts of 2009.

City Council Chamber (WMassP&I)
Under Springfield's all at-large system, all council candidates already had to file with OCPF.  Therefore, anybody running for city council would be familiar with the system.  However, the introduction of ward-representation, approved by voters two years before the legislature changed the law, threw a monkey wrench into the process.  While it is true that ward or district councilors in the commonwealth's other large cities still had had to file with their clerks for years, that a seminal election in Springfield would take place under a fractured campaign reporting process seemed problematic.

For some it was not an issue.  Ward 5 Councilor, Clodo Concepcion was a perennial at-large candidate and had a file with OCPF.  However, his 2009 records at City Hall were quite spare and seemed to rely heavily on less than $50 donations, which need not be reported unless that person contributes again and crosses the $50 threshold.  Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak, too, had run in the past. as an at-large candidate.  Others took their reporting particularly seriously and submitted typed reports instead of handwriting information onto commission-issued forms.  But notably, the reporting requirements were not as thorough as the OCPF's, which requires more frequent bank and expenditure reports.  Still, were there a violation or omission, the Election Commission could refer the matter to OCPF, who could then audit a committee that does not file with them.  None of the substance of the disclosure, contribution or expenditure laws vary whether a candidate files with OCPF or not.

Chapter 28 of the Laws of 2009 was quite a departure from the previous law in terms of the scale of work needed to be done.  Jason Tait, a Public Information Officer at OCPF, characterized the transition as "lots of work."  Needless to say, this effort involved working with city clerks in the commonwealth's largest cities to adequately inform candidates of the change and transition more responsibility away from clerks and to OCPF.  Gladys Oyola, the head of Springfield's Election Commission described the switchover as something of a relief as her office lacked the legal resources to answer all ward candidate's questions, whereas the OCPF does generally.

In a memo the OCPF distributed, the office said that all candidates must continue to file if they have money in their committee bank accounts or have outstanding liabilities.  A candidate's committee can not be dissolved if either of those two applied.  However, if a committee has neither and does not file for dissolution, it can be administratively closed by the OCPF, or for a municipal filer, by the clerk's office.

Orlando Ramos (Facebook)
The transition in Springfield caught more than Amaad Rivera in the cracks.  According to campaign finance records retained by the Election Commission under the old law, council aspirants Gumersindo Gomez and Michael Rodgers, who ran for the Ward 1 and 7 seats respectively, had yet to file any reports more recent than 2009.  The latest paperwork in both former candidates' files showed balances in their committee accounts.  Other candidates for the general election in city's other six wards had closed their accounts with City Hall, or in the case of Orlando Ramos of Ward 8, continued to file with the Election Commission rather than OCPF, as he technically should have.  Tait, the OCPF spokesman, said that letter of the law violations by a losing candidate, like Ramos, would largely be ignored.  Ramos began filing with OCPF earlier this year.  The former candidates were also, to some extent, ignored, although arguably the candidates that closed their accounts with the Election Commission did so after being notified.

Even before the law changed, at-large candidates needing to file with OCPF had problems.  Tim Rooke, an at-large member of the council and presently the dean of the body, faced several thousand dollars in penalties for filing his 2005 year end report 250 days late.  Rooke appealed the finding, and was denied although part of his fine was suspended.  Ultimately, the hearing officer rejected the appeal because Rooke's excuse that his "intent was not to deceive," was irrelevant in light of OCPF's purpose, which is to enforce disclosure.  In addition, they noted that Rooke's committee had a history of late filing.

Other former candidates have been hit, too.  Morris Jones has two recent violations on file, including a fine for failure to file paperwork on time in 2009.  James Anziano, a candidate in 2005 was likewise behind.  A file for John Lysak, suggests no violations, but OCPF ruled his use of a building for his campaign headquarters an in-kind contribution that needed to be reported.  Consequently, the OCPF found fair market value for that space exceeded the $500 contribution limit.  Lysak's campaign subsequently paid the difference to the landlord.

As Tait explained to WMassP&I, the OCPF's primary concern is disclosure.  To that end, OCPF is more than willing, Tait said, to engage with candidates who may not be filing for whatever reason, if it means that their donations, expenditures and committee financial activity is disclosed.  Incidentally, as of late last week, Councilor Rivera's forms were filed with OCPF.  There is no word yet on what, if any penalty, may be levied against him for the tardiness.

Campaign finance regulations, which also include things like attribution ("I'm X and I approve this message," is the simplest example), are in flux in light of Citizens United, but they were facing an unknown future anyway.  The advent of Facebook and Twitter has shaken up the campaign finance status quo, which has changed little since the initial push in the 1970's.  Alaska, for example, has recommended separate Twitter accounts for officials in their capacity as officeholders and in their guise as candidates.  Many, if not most US Senators follow this rule, but it is unclear if this is due to federal law or Senate rules.  Massachusetts has no such rules yet, but it seems likely that no further steps will be taken until the full jurisprudence of Citizens United pans out and further legislation pursued by the feds.  However, under current political conditions that may not be for many years, especially if amendments to the Constitution prove necessary.

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