Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Local Campaign Finance Reports Should be Available Online

Candidates running for federal office are required to file quarterly financial reports, and these are available online for inspection. Similarly, pols seeking state office or a judgeship must file campaign finance reports in Harrisburg, and those are eventually accessible over the Internet, too.

But what about candidates seeking local office? Sure, they're required to list their campaign donors and expenses with the local elections office, but who bothers to scrutinize them? Aside from a few reporters and opposing candidates, nobody.

As a result, very few of us know the very deep connection between local pols and money. In a recent Easton city council race, for example, candidate Jeff Warren spent $14.90 for each vote cast in his direction. As State Senator Lisa Boscola's chief legislative assistant, Jeff raised $12,385 between the beginning of the year and the end of April. That's a lot more than mayoral candidates Fleck($8,424) or Panto($7,365). He picked up $3,300 from representatives of Ashley Development, and another $2,000 from other developers. He reports $4,450 in donations between $50 and $250, but only $300 of this sum actually comes from Easton residents. Outsiders and developers just don't give this kind of money unless they're looking for something.

Follow the money, they say.

But that's hard to do when you don't get much of an opportunity to look at finance reports. Most of us are at work when those reports are available.

That's why I'm suggesting that both Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham and Northampton County Executive John Stoffa order their staffs to make these reports available online. Earlier this week, Northampton County began posting bench warrants for deadbeat parents online. Both counties are using the Internet to bring government closer to the people.

Posting finance reports online serves the same goal, and also creates more interest in the local electoral process, enabling the voter to make a more informed decision.

I'm sending a copy of this blog to each exec and I'll let you know what they say.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bravo, Bernie. Couldn't agree more. Re: "follow the money," if The Morning Call thought Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham's legal $3,000 slush fund for political receptions merited front page scrutiny (9/6/07), I'm wondering when the local media will be exposing Lehigh County District Attorney James B. Martin's political slush fund. This one is legal too, but genuinely troublesome, and involves tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions Mr. Martin doesn't need to use for reelection advertising (because he runs unopposed) and so he's free to solicit and accept lots of money from corporations and individuals and then "pay it forward," that is, spread it around among his favorite judges, political cronies, and even his boss, PA State Attorney General Tom Corbett.

The details can be found on the second of the two web sites you reference ...

www.campaignfinance.state.pa.us

and specifically here (and I hope this link comes out okay), see the entries starting with #445 on page 9 and ending with #495 on page 10, here ...

http://www.campaignfinance.
state.pa.us/ContributionSearch
Results.aspxRequestID=86231&
SortOrder=0&StartRow=451&Rows
PerPage=50

As Chris Casey clarified on a recent blog: If the Morning Call wants to be fair, investigate Martin's motives. The judicial branch of government is not supposed to have an agenda. It's perfectly acceptable in the legislative branch for candidates to financially support one another, and push one agenda or another, but dispensing equal justice under the law is supposed to be free of that, right?

Anonymous said...

why just the execs? why not everyone

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 9:37,

A few quick notes. First, corporatons are prohibited by the elections code from contributing to a state or local political campaign. Second, Corbett is not Martin's boss. Martin answers to the voters.

But I agree with your main point. It is very troubling when a district attorney starts sponsoring and promoting judicial candidates. In NC, two sitting judges once worked under John Morganelli, and he actively promoted their candidacies. It happens everywhere.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 9:55,

I've asked the execs of both counties to order that ALL campaign finance reports be published online. I did not mean to suggest that just their reports should be published.

Anonymous said...

Re: Bernie 9:57am

Re: "it happens everywhere"

My concern is that influence amassing can inhibit competition-- that is, could there be a connection between DA Jim Martin running unopposed, again, this November ... and prospective competitors having been scared off by Martin's paid-for influence? Especially among judges. I'm not an investigative reporter but I'd sure appreciate seeing one assigned to look into this ...

Bernie O'Hare said...

There's no question that, the larger the warchest, the less likely there will be competition. An incumbent, as you say, can spread his money to people who will remember that when they have to decide something in which he has an interest.

The answer to these problems, which do exist everywhere, is campaign finance reform. Our new legislature might consider some changes, but the change I'm suggesting is a big one - clean election laws.

That would stop the problem you mention dead in its tracjks. It's being tried as a pilot program in some Jersey counties, and has been successful.

For nonpartisan offices like DA and judge, I think clean election laws might be something we could push w/ the state legislature.

Anonymous said...

Re: Bernie 9:57am

Re: "corporatons are prohibited by the elections code from contributing to a state or local political campaign."

Air Products & Chemicals made a $500 contribution to the Committee to Elect Jim Martin in January, 2007. As of 7/1/07, it could be seen here ...

http://www.campaignfinance.
state.pa.us/ExpenseSearch.aspx?RequestID=8516&StartRow=1&Rows
PerPage=10&SortOrder=0

... but I see today that it is no longer there. Good thing I printed it out ...

BethlehemDem said...

Anon 10:59,
That contribuiton was not really from Air Products, it is from a Political Action Committee (PAC). Most large companies, unions, and organizations have PACs. It is a way to give money to candidates without breaking the law.

Groups like teacher's unions and the PA Bar Association have PACs and the members contribute money to the PAC. The PAC then gives money to candidates. Company PACs have employees give money.

Gort said...

Bernie,

You are an inspiration. I just emailed the Luzerne County Director of Elections and asked him the same thing.

Thanks

Anonymous said...

Re: Bernie 9:57am

Re: "In NC, two sitting judges once worked under John Morganelli, and he actively promoted their candidacies."

Sure, like the Committee to Elect Jim Martin contributed large bucks to Martin's 1st Assistant DA Maria Dantos and her campaign for Lehigh County Judge. Insider trading, so to speak, that can benefit Martin directly. But DA Jim Martin also lines the pockets of PA Superior Court and Supreme Court judges. Like PA Supreme Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin out of Pittsburgh. What's up with this?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Welcome to the real world. That goes on everywhere. Martin is nothing unusual. Is it wrong? Yes. Is it legal? Yes.

Deep Throat 18042 said...

Bernie Lad,

Glad to see you bring up Mr. Warren. Here is another question. How much money has he rasied around the time developers he is backed by got approval from the planning and zoning board he currently sits on?

Riverwalk steamrolled through there. Makes you wonder .

Also compare Warren with the other candidates left.

Brown had the least raised of the dems. yet had a mighty high number of signs. Allegedlly paid for by himself. Yet I don't recall that being reported.

Warner had I think just 1,000 for her primary. One developer gave a small amount (compared to warren) who is also her personal freind.

On the republican side. No one talks about Roger Ruggles backing. Gary Berch. And most importantly where is Peter Melan getting his dough?

Melan is heavily involved in eastons landlord scene as is Berch.

Northampton county putting this on the web would REALLY clear items up.

But please Lad.

More coverage of the dough in easton. Chances are it will be the money show come november for the county.

Also Panto took no PAC cash for the primaries. He worded his reason in the spring as to imply he will take PAC funds now.

Follow the Money Bernie,

Bernie O'Hare said...

Deep Throat,

I lack your command of the details, especially on the ground. I have no idea how many signs Brown used, but he may just have recycled signs from a previous campaign.

What you say about Jeff Warren is spot on. And I know the folks at EU are looking at that very closely.

But the best way to follow the money is to maximize the number of people who are able to look at campaign finance reports. That can be accomplished if they are posted online. It might even spark voter interest and increase turnout.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Gort,

It would be wonderful iof we could persuade surrounding counties to get in on this.

Anonymous said...

Re: Bernie 11:33am

Re: "Welcome to the real world. That goes on everywhere. Martin is nothing unusual. Is it wrong? Yes. Is it legal? Yes."

I cannot believe that campaign slush fund forwarding "goes on everywhere" to the extreme that DA Jim Martin appears to take it. I believe we need a comparative analysis of some kind. In "everywhere's" other counties, where there may be more than one newspaper, I believe an American free press would question Mr. Martin on his extreme "pay it forward" practices. But maybe our local press isn't "free" enough (of old-boy network connections to Mr. Martin) to do that (?) ... and then the question becomes who investigates our local "free" press?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 12:49,

I've seen this time and again. The local press usually does publish an article about finance reports right after they are filed. Sometimes, they make the connections you are suggesting.

Is it ethical for a DA who is running unopposed to use his campaign finance fund to throw money at his favorites on the bench? Is it ehtical for a DA who is running unopposed to pad his campaign fund for the real race he intends to run - attorney genertal? Is it ethical for a DA to contribute to judges before whom he practices? Or to help in their campaigns?

The answer to all of these questions is YES. No ethics commission or disciplinary board would investigate a complaint based on that. The fault is not with the person, but with the system.

Don't hate the playa' hate the game.

Should the rules be changed? Yes. Will they be changed? Not in my lifetime.

What you see with Martin can and does happen elsewhere. In fact, it happens so much it's not really considered very newsworthy.

But it bothers you and perhaps would bother others. That's why all campaign finance records should be available for online review.

And looking at them in any detail is time-consuming. I can spend days just looking at the latest reports, looking for patterns. And be;lieve it or not, reporters do that. They even prepare spreadsheets and will develop patterns over years.

I'd like to devote more time to it myself, but it's hard to do that and pay my bills.

river said...

I am glad to see people still remember old Boss Tweed and how bad things can get if no one speaks out

Anonymous said...

Re: Bernie 1:02 pm

Re: "What you see with Martin can and does happen elsewhere. In fact, it happens so much it's not really considered very newsworthy."

Let's agree to disagree on this one. I believe Mr. Martin's campaign slush fund "pay it forward" practices would exceed, for example, neighboring county DA John Morganelli's, if put to a comparative analysis. And there's one for your dutiful and spreadsheet compiling local reporters to consider comparing: which DA pays off more judges? Martin or Morganelli? My money's on Jumbo Jimbo ..

Bernie O'Hare said...

Inasmuch as Morganelli is preparing to launch a state AG race, he needs ever penny he can get. So that's not a fair compariosn right now. But if you were to compare Martin to other unopposed DAs seeking reelection, you would see that they all do what Martin does. He is not unusual.

Your complaint seems to be directed at Martin, while mine is directed at the game.

Anonymous said...

Re: Bernie 1:54pm

Re: "if you were to compare Martin to other unopposed DAs seeking reelection, you would see that they all do what Martin does. He is not unusual."

With all due respect, I'm not satisfied with taking your word as gospel on this. Martin's campaign slush fund "paying it forward" to judges seems excessive to me, albeit in a "gut reaction" kind of way. Is it really in line with what other unopposed DAs seeking reelection are paying forward to judges? I'd like to know for sure ...

Anonymous said...

Re: Bernie 1:54pm

Re: "Your complaint seems to be directed at Martin, while mine is directed at the game."

I don't see where this is relevant to our otherwise swell conversation.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Don't take my word as gospel on this. I haven't researched it. But I know, from years of looking at expense reports, that DAs regularly contribute to judges, and in a big way. If I were writing a post about it, I would give links to the details to support that hypothesis. They're trying to stack the bench, and usually succeed, too. I'm not defending Martin. I'm just saying that there are 67 Martins in Pa.

The best way to answer this question is to do the research. And right now, I've got a title search to finish before I get strung up.

Anonymous said...

Re: Bernie 2:30pm

Re: "The best way to answer this question is to do the research. And right now, I've got a title search to finish before I get strung up."

I'm with ya. I've got a business to run. Hopefully the gaggle of local reporters who hang around this blog looking for the same story to steal will pick up on this Jim Martin story ... but ... nah ... way too much work. Hey I thought Brittany Spears looked pretty darn good on the MTV Music Awards, didn't you, certainly good enough to be pictured above the logo on the front page of The Morning Call. Boy did they blow that breaking news story op or what ...

Jake said...

If Morganelli needs $, He could always see if Fred RooneyJr., had another extra $1000.00 laying around?

Anonymous said...

Gee "Deep Throat", that is astonishing that Roger Ruggles is supporting Gary Bertsch. Duh, they are both Republicans who have much to gain by working with each other to straighten out Easton's problems. Good insight there.

What you should focus on is the fact that Sal Panto is using Tom Severson's PMI. As a matter of fact the sleazy "push polling" against Gary be Panto/PMI has already begun! Same old machine slime.

Let's give Easton some NEW people - not retreads utilizing, how did Bernie put it? The King of Sleaze!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon, I sure hope that Panto is not using the King of Sleazeball politics. Severson is bad for democracy.