Berks County officials refer Local 98 probe to DA, Ethics Board

     The Electrical Workers Local 98 at Spring Garden and 17th streets in Philadelphia is shown in this May 2013 photo. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks, file)

    The Electrical Workers Local 98 at Spring Garden and 17th streets in Philadelphia is shown in this May 2013 photo. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks, file)

    An investigation by the Berks County Election Board concludes that a powerful Philadelphia union appears to have funnelled $20,000 in campaign contributions through a Reading political committee to two Philadelphia candidates in violation of state election law.

    The board has referred the case to the Berks County district attorney and the Board of Ethics in Philadelphia, whose campaign contribution limits are an issue in the case.

    The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 is a powerful political force in Philadelphia and across the Pennsylvania.

    Four days before the 2011 general election, the union made a $30,000 contribution to the campaign of the Democratic candidate for mayor of Reading, Vaughn Spencer. On the same day, the Spencer campaign gave $10,000 contributions to two Philadelphia City Council candidates the union had already given generously to. If they had come directly from the union, the $10,000 donations would have nearly doubled the maximum allowed from a single political committee under the city’s campaign finance law.

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    The contributions generated some buzz in Reading where Spencer, the Democrat, was considered a shoe-in against Republican Jim McHale.

    “The magnitude of the campaign contribution coming from Philadelphia to a relatively obscure local campaign caught the eye of a number of people,” said Mark Scott, a Berks County commissioner who chairs the county election board.

    What the board found

    It’s illegal under state law to direct a contribution to anyone through a third party, because it obscures the real source of the money. The election board hired a special counsel, subpoenaed records, and took sworn tesimony from now Mayor Spencer and his campaign aides, who, the board found, had no reasonable explanation for the simultaneous contributions.

    The board noted that at the time the Spencer campaign was giving $20,000 to two Philadelphia Council candidates it had no discernible history with, the Spencer campaign itself was so strapped for cash that Spencer himself put $5,000 into the campaign to meet expenses.

    Under the “findings of fact” section of the election board’s report, the board concludes:

    “the simultaneous swap of funds between Local 98 and FVS [Friends of Vaughn Spencer] and the contributions to the candidates, just four days before the Election, can only lead to the conclusion that is [sic] was part of an agreement with Local 98…to funnel additional contributions from Local 98 to [Philadelphia Council candidates] Rubin and Green..”

    You can read the board’s report here.

    What happens now?

    Berks County District Attorney John Adams didn’t return my call. He could investigate the matter, drop it, or just as likely refer it to state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, which would be interesting since she was elected with a lot of union support.

    Philadelphia Board of Ethics executive director Shane Creamer declined comment. I wanted to ask Local 98 Business Manager John Dougherty about the curious coincidence of these contributions, but he declined to talk to me. He did tell the Philadelphia Daily News that the Berks County probe was “a partisan witch hunt”  by “two white tea-party commissioners chasing an African-American mayor.” Scott said that was ridiculous.

    It doesn’t appear that the two Philadelphia Council candidates, Bill Green and Bill Rubin, would be violating state law by accepting a contribution routed through a third party (the law makes it a sin to give, but is silent on receiving), but it would look bad.

    Both told me they had no information that the Reading contributions might have originated from the union, and both said they hadn’t been contacted about the matter by anyone but reporters. You can read more of what they said in the post I wrote in May, when the Berks County board was beginning its inquiry.              

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