Court upholds campaign contribution limits

    In a campaign season filled with Super PAC’s and million-dollar donors, a Philadelphia judge has ruled that, at least in this town, campaign contribution limits apply to a mayor’s race.

    The ruling by Judge Leon Tucker concerns the 2007 race, the first mayoral contest ever run with contribution limits. Michael Nutter won the Democratic primary that year in part because he was the only candidate who committed early on to raising funds within the contribution limits enacted by City Council.

    Some other candidates expected the limits would never pass legal muster. They figured they didn’t need to hustle for smaller contributions could raise big checks when the chips were on the table. They were wrong.

    Judge Tucker ruled in a five year-old legal dispute concerning legal fees for the mayoral campaign of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who was then and remains the chairman of Philadelphia’s Democratic party.

    Brady incurred the expenses fighting a challenge to his candidacy, because he’d failed to list some income on the statement of financial interests filed with his nominating papers.

    I have a special interest in this case because as a newspaper reporter I broke the story about Brady’s omission, and the ballot challenge soon followed. I remembered thinking that it could be a problem if Brady got a blue-chip lawyer to represent him, because the the lawyer couldn’t simply donate a few hundred thousand dollars worth of legal services without running afoul of the campaign finance law.

    Brady finished the campaign owing the Cozen O’Connor law firm $448,000 in legal fees, and Judge Tucker has ruled that if the firm were to forgive the debt to Brady, that would qualify as a contribution under the city’s campaign finance law, and limits in the law would apply – $2,900 per year from an individual, and $11,500 a year from a political committee or business partnership.

    Brady can raise money from other supporters within those limits to retire the debt, but it isn’t the only one he has. His latest finance report shows his mayoral committee owes a total of $730,885 in debts, including $30,000 in rent and $40,000 to the campaign of former State Senator Vince Fumo, who’s doing federal time on corruption charges.

    We’re now two and half years from the next mayor’s race, and I’m wondering if the contribution limits that governed the last two mayoral contests will be in effect blown away by committees raising and spending huge sums to assist or destroy chosen candidates. Under the city’s law, this is legal.

    I’ll have more on that soon in another post. If you’re interested in the Brady case, you can read a statement by the city Board of Ethics and Judge Tucker’s ruling here.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.