Philly DA candidate O’Neill — nobody owns him, just his ads

 The only TV ad for DA candidate Jack O'Neill is run by a labor-funded Super PAC (NewsWorks screengrab)

The only TV ad for DA candidate Jack O'Neill is run by a labor-funded Super PAC (NewsWorks screengrab)

“Jack O’Neill for district attorney — owned by nobody, making us believe again,” says an announcer in the only TV ad for O’Neill, the 35-year-old former prosecutor who entered the Philadelphia DA’s race at the last minute in March.

The “owned by nobody” phrase caught my ear because, among the seven Democratic candidates for DA, O’Neill is the one relies who almost entirely on a single constituency for his support — the building trades unions.

The ad itself comes not from O’Neill’s campaign, but from a super PAC funded primarily by unions that had cash left over from a 2015 effort in support of Jim Kenney’s successful mayoral campaign.

The committee, called Build a Better Pa Fund, has spent $139,700 promoting O’Neill’s candidacy as of the latest campaign finance report. Apart from that, building trades unions have contributed two-thirds of the nearly $67,000 O’Neill raised so far for his own campaign fund.

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When O’Neill got the endorsement of eight building trades unions last month, he told them at a rally that he’d appoint a deputy of labor liaison “so that every one of you will have direct and constant communication with a person who understands what you need.”

He said afterward he wasn’t giving special access to campaign supporters, but connecting the DA’s office with people who can provide good training and good-paying jobs, critical to giving offenders alternatives to a life of crime.

“The DA’s office needs to have a good relationship with labor and to work closely with them in order to do its job,” O’Neill said. He also said he thought the DA’s office should start cracking down on rogue employers who violate prevailing wage standards and exploit workers.

Skating close to a line

One of the other things that’s striking about the super PAC ad for O’Neill is that it uses a nice-looking head shot of the candidate that, it turns out, is the same photo you see when you go to the campaign’s website. That could be a problem, because super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with the candidate they support. The Philadelphia Board of Ethics defines coordination to include, among other things, reproducing and disseminating a photo prepared by the candidate’s campaign.

I spoke to Michael Bronstein, whose firm, Bronstein & Weaver, made the super PAC’s ad, and he said they know the rules and adhere to them closely. 

“All the images in the ad came from public sources that are not related to or controlled by the campaign,” he said, though he couldn’t immediately recall where that image had come from.

It turns out there’s an exception in the Ethics Board rules for campaign images that are secured from “a public source that is not controlled by the candidate’s campaign.”

The O’Neill campaign photo in question was published on the website City and State to accompany a story about O’Neill, so it could have been legally taken from there.

Maurice Floyd, a consultant to the O’Neill campaign, said he was certain that the photo didn’t come from the campaign itself. “We have absolutely nothing to do with them,” he said.

Another candidate, Larry Krasner, is benefiting from a much more expensive independent advertising campaign funded by billionaire George Soros. His ad didn’t appear to have any photo or video images from the Krasner campaign website.

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