The Philadelphia Board of Ethics has fined the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers $1,500 for contributions to City Council candidate Helen Gym in violation of the city’s campaign finance law.
Political committees are permitted to give candidates for municipal office no more than $11,500 per year. The board found (and the PFT admitted) that the union’s political committee gave Gym’s campaign twice that, routing a second contribution through the committee of the American Federation of Teachers’ Pennsylvania chapter.
Some have publicly questioned whether actions like these by the Ethics Board are effective in policing campaigns. In this case, the union got to deliver $11,500 more than the law allows to Gym’s campaign at the relatively moderate cost of a $1,500 fine.
Some public embarrassment is associated with the action, of course, but is that enough? I don’t know, but it’s good somebody’s paying attention.
Getting homework in on time
The board also announced $1,500 fines for eight political committees that failed to file required campaign finance reports on time in May.
Some of these committees actually did file those reports with other government bodies, such as the city board of election, but failed to comply with the additional requirement that they file an electronic copy with the Ethics Board.
What’s interesting here is that, in the past, the board would remind committees that failed to make those filings on time, and fine only those that ignored the requirement after that.
But there’s a reason for the extra requirement in city law for an electronic filing with the Ethics Board, and it’s important. State law doesn’t require a digital filing, so campaigns can submit paper reports that may take weeks to get into a searchable data base for the public to review.
The city and Ethics Board insisted on the electronic filing so they could quickly load those reports into an online data base, so citizens know something useful before the election, not after.
There’s disclosure, and then there’s meaningful disclosure, and the board is doing the right thing by putting some teeth into the electronic filing requirement.
And, by the way, of nearly 400 reports that were due in the May filing, all but 15 were properly filed electronically with the board (fines on seven committees were announced earlier this year).
“We have generally pretty high compliance, which is exciting,” Ethics Board executive director Shane Creamer told me.
You can read the Ethics Board settlement agreements with the PFT and the other committees here.