There I was looking over City Councilman Bill Green’s campaign finance report for 2012, and it practically jumped off the page at me: a $25,000 contribution from bottling company owner Harold Honickman on Oct. 5.
Add that to Honickman’s April donation of $5,000, and you get $30,000 in contributions in a single year — more than 10 times the $2,900 maximum individual campaign contribution allowed under the city’s campaign finance law.
What the huh?
Yeah, Green tells me when I get on the phone, it’s perfectly legal.
Turns out he’s right.
Which is weird, since for years now, other city officials have refrained from accepting contributions above the limits in the law.
But, technically, the law applies only to candidates. And an incumbent like Green, or somebody planning to run against him for Council or mayor in 2015, isn’t a candidate until he or she files nominating petitions or publicly declares he or she is running.
But I always thought (and there’s a 2005 city solicitor’s opinion on this) that if you accepted over-the-limit contributions to the same committee you’d eventually use for your campaign, you’d taint the whole stash, since it would be impossible to separate the “legal” money from the big checks that came in before you were a candidate.
But the city Ethics Board has decided that, if you’re careful, you can separate the money.
Nearly two years ago, the Ethics Board issued an opinion to the unnamed treasurer of a campaign committee that said yes, you can raise “excess contributions” and put the dough in your campaign committee as long as you use it for non-campaign expenses, including pre-campaign rent, utilities, and salaries. You can read the opinion here.
Ethics Board Exectuive Director Shane Creamer said there are clearly some things you can’t do.
“For example, if an individual gave you $100,000 and you used that $100,000 before you become candidate to buy bumper stickers and lawn signs and then you put them in your closet, you can’t do that,” he said.
He said a campaign that wants to do this — accept big checks and use the money before an official candidacy occurs — had better be careful and have a good campaign treasurer. But you can do it.
It will be interesting to see if other city officials who’ve been taking only limited contributions because they thought they had to will change their thinking as news of Green’s jackpot from Honickman spreads.
I asked Green if accepting $30,000 from a single donor violated the spirit of the city’s campaign finance law.
“Well, laws don’t have spirits, but they do have intent,” Green said. “And if you’re complying with the letter of the law, you’re complying with the intent of the law.”
Green’s donor Honickman, who owns a large bottling company, has vigorously opposed proposals for a sweetened beverage tax. Honickman declined an interview. In a prepared statement, he praised Green’s work in Council on business attraction, gun violence and homelessness.
This disclosure: The Honickman family is a supporter of WHYY.