The Berks County Board of Elections is investigating two $10,000 contributions that Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer made to Philadelphia City Council candidates in 2011 — the day after Spencer received a $30,000 contribution from the political committee of the powerful electricians’ union in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia candidates who got the contributions, re-elected Democratic Councilman-at-large Bill Green and 10th District Democratic challenger Bill Rubin, had already received the maximum contribution permitted under the city’s campaign finance law from the political committee of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, campaign finance records show.
Christine Sadler, solicitor for the Berks County Board of Elections, said the board initiated an investigation of the contributions after receiving a citizen complaint.
“Our focus is whether or not this complies with state election law,” Sadler said in a telephone interview.
The state election code prohibits anyone from making a political contribution “with funds designated or given to him for the purpose by any other person.” Sadler said the board had engaged a private attorney, Philadelphia attorney Lawrence Tabas, to conduct the investigation.
The Local 98 committee made its contribution to Spencer’s campaign on Nov. 4th, just four days before the 2011 general election. Spencer’s contributions to Rubin and Green were made the next day.
At the time, all three men were candidates for election.
Local 98 officials declined comment and Reading Mayor Spencer didn’t return calls for comment, so it’s unclear whether Spencer sought the union’s money and what communication, if any, he may have had with union officials.
The Philadelphia candidates who received the contributions from Mayor Spencer, Green and Rubin, both said in telephone interviews they heard nothing to indicate that the money had originally come from the electricians’ union.
Rubin said he’d never met Spencer and wasn’t sure why he was so generous. Rubin said it was the last frantic days of the race and his campaign was searching far and wide for financial help.
“We had people calling all kinds of politicians, searching every nook and cranny for a dollar,” Rubin said.
Asked if he’d contacted Spencer after he’d received the $10,000, Rubin said a campaign thank you was sent, but that he hadn’t personally reached out to him. On Nov. 8, Rubin lost his bid to unseat incumbent Republican Councilman Brian O’Neill.
“Honestly, after the election was over and it didn’t go well, I didn’t do a lot of follow up,” Rubin said.
Green said in a phone interview that he’d met Spencer, but didn’t remember under what circumstances.
“My recollection is that [Spencer’s] was a contrribution I received in connection with a fundraiser where we probably raised 50, 60, 70 thousand dollars,” Green said.
Zack Stalberg, president of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy said the facts are troubling, and he’s concerned about the integrity of the city’s laws on contribution limits.
“So far these laws have done a good job in terms of cleaning up the pay-to-play atmosphere in Philadelphia,” Stalberg said, “but like all campaign finance laws, after a while people start finding their way around them. At least at face value, this seems like an example of that.”
Rubin said the Philadelphia Ethics Board had asked him about the contribution from Spencer about a year ago, and he’s heard nothing more about it. Ethics board executive director Shane Creamer declined comment.
Earlier in 2011, Local 98 had contributed the maximum allowable limits to Green, and had also made contributions to other political committees, which in turn, made contributions to Green and 6th District Democrat Bobby Henon, another Council candidate who was also the union’s political director.
After media reports of those contributions, City Council enacted rules in April to tighten rules governing contributions that appear to be routed through numerous committees.
For the Local 98 contribution to Spencer to run afoul of Philadelphia’s rules, it would have to be shown that union officials directed, or at least requested, that the Spencer campaign use some or all its contribution to support candidates of the union’s choosing.