Sunday, January 16, 2011

CCA Election Law Violation

Political organizations are required to make periodic financial reports to disclose their expenditures. Around an election they are required to make reports 28 days and 7 days before the election and 28 days after the election. These filing requirements are described here.

When the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee (CDTC) reviewed the "7 day" filings of CCA and the CCA-endorsed candidates for the Charlestown Town Council we were surprised to see no report of the money spent for the town-wide mailing, newspaper advertisement, and other items.

When this became clear we submitted a protest to the Rhode Island Board of Elections.

The Board of Elections reviewed the complaint and found that the CCA was in violation of Rhode Island election law. Here are the letters sent to the CCA and the CDTC after their investigation.

BOE: CCA Failed to Disclose Spending, The Westerly Sun, January 16, 2011

■ Campaign finance reports by group's treasurer didn't account for all pre-election spending.

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance technically violated a state campaign finance law when its treasurer failed to properly report election expenses, the Rhode Island Board of Elections has ruled.

In a Dec. 16 public notice, Director of Campaign Finance Richard Thornton said the local watchdog group did not disclose two expenditures that were made before Nov. 2 - but weren't reported until after Election Day. The elections board met behind closed doors on Dec. 15 to discuss the matter, and subsequently issued CCA a warning for the errors.

"Although this presented a technical violation of [the law], the violation did not appear to be willful or deliberate," Thornton wrote to CCA Treasurer John Jurgens, of Stuart, Fla.

In November, the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee filed a complaint against CCA, charging that the group did not report the purchase of a full-page ad in the Charlestown Press weekly newspaper, or a six-page color campaign flier mailed to local voters. The expenditures were not included in a CCA campaign finance report showing election spending between Oct. 5 and 26.

In both cases, CCA members paid for the ad and flier in mid-October, and were reimbursed later with election funds; the ad and flier showed up in a Nov. 30 campaign finance report. "There seems to have been a lot of expenses paid for by members, then the members were reimbursed by CCA," Thornton said Thursday. "They did disclose the expenditures, just not in the proper reporting period."

Among the expenditures that weren't reported until Nov. 30: campaign magnets and leaflets purchased by Thomas Gentz ($295); a townwide campaign mailer, postage and labels purchased by Cliff Vanover ($2,364); and first-class postage for a separate mailer purchased by Planning Commission member Kate Waterman ($880). Gentz and Vanover were both CCA-endorsed Town Council candidates in the election.

Deborah Carney, chairwoman of the Democratic Town Committee, said the violation contradicts CCA's calls for transparency.

"Prior to the election of November 2010, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance Steering Committee continually attacked the previous Town Council for not being open and transparent," she wrote in a letter to The Sun (the full version appears on Page 4).

"Well, the Board of Elections recently found that the CCA itself failed to disclose all of what they should have disclosed to the citizens of Charlestown. The CCA was not as open and transparent as it should have been."

CCA is both a political action committee that raises money for candidates, and a ballot advocacy group organized to remove elected officials from office. It also advocates for fiscal responsibility and town charter compliance.

Jurgens' wife Kallie, who serves as CCA's president, said the group's election disclosures were delayed by an order for Washington Trust Company checks. CCA has always filed its campaign finance reports in a timely manner, she said. "We changed treasurers midstream in the election and we had to order new checks through Washington Trust," Kallie Jurgens wrote via e-mail (her full response also appears on Page 4). "Those checks took almost a month to get, and came following the deadline for filing. As Deb would know, it clearly states on the Board of Election form to list each check paid. Without checks, there was no way to pay those expenditures until after [October]. The BOE found that the two expenses were included in the very next filing." "Despite the unavoidable delay, which the BOE accepted, all expenditures were fully reported as soon as we could report them," she added. "Nothing was hidden and everything was fully accounted for."

Carney said the expenditures still should have been documented before Election Day. "If expenses are incurred, they need to be reported, whether you're waiting for checks or not," she said. "If that's the case, then many candidates could change treasurers mid-campaign so they can avoid disclosing their expenses, too. ... The CCA can try the old smoke and mirrors trick to divert attention away from the fact that they violated the law, but the fact remains, they did not report major campaign expenditures prior to the election, and saying you didn't have checks shouldn't prevent them from reporting it as a loan. That would have been more transparent."

Campaign finance complaints are typically considered confidential unless the complainant waives confidentiality or the board issues a finding, Thornton said.

Letter published in The Westerly Sun, January 16 2011

CCA less than transparent on campaign spending

Prior to the election of November 2010, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance Steering Committee continually attacked the previous Town Council for not being open and transparent. Well, the Board of Elections recently found that the CCA itself failed to disclose all of what it should have disclosed to the citizens of Charlestown. The CCA was not as open and transparent as it should have been.

On Nov. 16, 2010, the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee filed a complaint with the Board of Elections alleging the CCA violated campaign finance laws by not disclosing major campaign expenditures made during the month of October, specifically, its six-page campaign mailing and the full page ad that ran in the Charlestown Press. On Dec. 16, 2010, the BOE found the CCA violated RIGL 17-25-11.

Now, normally, the Charlestown Democrats would not have made an issue of this, but I do recall the president of the CCA encouraged people to "Bring it on." Well, we brought it, and the CCA was in fact found to be in violation of the law.

Considering the CCA Steering Committee constantly makes a point of noting its commitment to transparency, its own 7-day campaign finance report neglected to note the following: $1,794.32 on printing for its town wide mailing (check made payable to Cliff Vanover), plus $528 on postage (check made payable to Cliff Vanover), plus $880 for postage for town-wide mailing (check made payable to Kate Waterman).

Since these expenses were incurred prior to election night, why did they keep it confidential? Those actions were not particularly transparent.

Just as interesting is the list of those individuals who contributed $100 or more to the CCA. The most recent reports show that individuals who reside outside of Charlestown contributed just about as much as those contributors who live within the town. In fact there were 2 (two) large donors who do not live in Charlestown, one contributed $460 and the other contributed $500.

Perhaps if the CCA Steering Committee really wanted to be transparent, it would list the major financial contributors on its website along with the city and state in which they reside. Then the citizens of Charlestown can see who the major contributors are without having to go searching the Secretary of State's website for this information.

To recap, is a violation of RIGL 17-25-11 in and of itself a major violation of the law? Well, when the CCA Steering Committee continually attacks a group of people for not being transparent, and it then hides how much money it spent on the election until after the fact, it may or may not be a major violation, but it certainly is not transparent. The citizens of Charlestown deserve better than CCA Steering Committee's attempts to deceive.

Deborah Carney, Charlestown.