For three months, the state Board of Elections’ chief investigator has been in possession of a three-page letter outlining a complaint about the spending patterns of political committees tied to Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and asking for an investigation.
The letter was written by James Sheppard, the Monroe County legislator one of the candidates challenging Warren in the Democratic primary in September.
Chances are that nothing will come of Sheppard’s complaint before the primary election, or even the general election, for that matter. The board is notoriously slow to act and cautious about being perceived as meddling in elections.
But Rochester’s political community is anxiously awaiting a resolution to the matter since it was reported the other day by the Gotham Gazette, an online publication that specializes in New York politics and policy.
His complaint waded into the nitty-gritty of the Byzantine world of political financing, but the crux of it was that Warren’s re-election bid is essentially being aided by two campaign committees, which would be a violation of state Election Law.
A campaign committee is basically a bank account that handles all the financial transactions that take place over the course of a campaign.
Money comes in the form of donations from supporters. Money goes out in the form of advertising on behalf of the candidate, paying staff, and hosting parties aimed at bringing in more money.
A campaign can only have one of these committees under the law. The reason is to ensure that candidates and their supporters abide by contribution limits. There’s a law for everything in politics, and just as many loopholes.
Under these contribution limits, the most an individual can donate to a campaign committee for a Rochester mayor candidate in the general election is $5,206. If the candidate is running in the Democratic primary, a donor can give another $3,351.
You’re asking, who in their right mind would give $8,557 to a politician? But some people, as well as companies and organizations and other political campaigns, do give that much, and they would give more if there were only a way that they could.
This is where the Sheppard campaign would raise the curtain on the Warren for a Strong Rochester Political Action Committee.
Like campaign committees, political action committees, or PACs, are basically bank accounts that handle financial transactions.
Unlike campaign committees, though, PACs by law can’t spend money on behalf of a candidate. They can give money to a candidate, but they can’t spend on behalf of a candidate other than in the form of a contribution. See what I meant by Byzantine?
If a PAC does give money to a candidate, it is restricted to the same limits as any other donor, which in the case of a Democratic candidate for mayor this year is $8,557.
Warren founded Warren for a Strong Rochester in 2015 and at the time told the Democrat and Chronicle the committee was affiliated with her fundraising team and would allow her to support various initiatives, events and candidates.
It is not uncommon for an elected official to start a PAC to advance a cause or support other candidates for office with a contribution.
But Sheppard’s complaint alleges that Warren for a Strong Rochester is spending on behalf of Warren, and that the amount it has spent far exceeds the $8,557 it could legally give to Warren’s campaign committee, Friends of Lovely Warren.
Sheppard specifically pointed to the Mayor’s Ball of 2016. The ball is an annual fundraiser for Warren that costs a minimum of $300 a ticket per person.
The ball is typically paid for by Friends of Lovely Warren. In return, Friends of Lovely Warren keeps the revenue with an eye toward spending it to get Warren re-elected so she can keep hosting balls and raise more money.
But in 2016, the ball was paid for by Warren for a Strong Rochester. Expenditure reports on file with the state Board of Elections suggests the PAC spent at least $59,000 on renting the Riverside Convention Center, printing invitations and postage. In return, Warren for a Strong Rochester kept the revenue.
There’s nothing improper about a PAC like Warren for a Strong Rochester hosting an event, charging admission and keeping the money.
Where the Sheppard camp believes the Warren has run around the law is in the way the Mayor’s Ball of 2016 was advertised.
The website promoting the ball contained a boilerplate message from Warren declaring the ball an event that “raises money to support my vision for Rochester and my re-election campaign.”
That mention of “my re-election campaign” may be problematic.
Warren campaign manager Brittany Wells said Friday that none of the money the PAC has raised was for the mayor’s re-election bid, and that whatever’s been spent on trying to keep her in office thus far was paid for by Friends for Lovely Warren.
Yet, there it was on the ball’s website, that mention of “my re-election campaign.”
Wells said Warren for a Strong Rochester was created to strengthen Rochester, just as its name indicates, and that its funds are used to support youth sports, church galas and other community events.
A sharper picture of how Warren for a Strong Rochester is spending money as the election nears, as well as how the campaign accounts of Warren and Sheppard and other mayoral candidates is spending theirs, will emerge Tuesday when the state Board of Elections is expected to release the financial disclosure reports of those committees.
Those reports, which campaigns are due to file Monday, will reflect money that came in and went out between Jan. 14 and July 13.
Perhaps those filings will move the board to address the complaint. Three months has already been ample time to arrive at a conclusion about its merit.
David Andreatta is a Democrat and Chronicle columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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