Philly PAC hit with record fine for failing to report $160,000 in campaign spending

Philadelphia City Hall (Nathaniel Hamilton/for WHYY)

Philadelphia City Hall (Nathaniel Hamilton/for WHYY)

A political action committee faces a $60,000 fine for failing to file required campaign finance reports for money it spent to sway voters in Philadelphia’s May 2015 primary.

City Council members Helen Gym, Mark Squilla and Allan Domb paid thousands of dollars to Citizens Organizing for Pennsylvania’s Security to help influence voters. So did developer Ori Feibush, who sent the PAC more than $65,000 during his failed bid to unseat councilman Kenyatta Johnson.

Those payments were totally legal and the campaigns filed the necessary finance reports. But how the PAC spent the money has remained a mystery, since it didn’t file campaign finance reports, as city law requires.

So the Philadelphia Board of Ethics sued the PAC over the summer to compel it to file two reports documenting how it spent nearly $160,000 in April, May and early June of 2015 during that spring’s primary.

Thursday, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Abbe Fletman agreed that the PAC and its treasurer, Kevin Price, broke city law — but agreed to reduce the fine to $40,000 if the PAC files the reports by Thursday. Price couldn’t be reached for comment.

Shane Creamer Jr., the ethics board’s executive director, said the fine is the highest the board has levied in its 10-year history for failure to file such reports.

“We have a pretty high compliance rate, it’s upwards of 99 percent, the last time we did a calculation,” Creamer said.

Failure to file required reports is “rare but we can find these committees, because they leave trails,” he added.

Voters lose when PACs don’t file reports, because then they don’t know how candidates spend campaign money, he said.

“It’s important for the public to have access to paid efforts to influence local elections,” Creamer said. “That’s what’s required under our law. Everybody’s got to file. If not everybody files, then you have incomplete information about money being spent to influence elections.”

During Feibush’s campaign, for example, the PAC paid protesters to attend his opponent’s April 30, 2015, rally at City Hall. The PAC also spent money on vans to transport the paid protesters to that rally.

The unreported money includes $65,834 Feibush’s campaign paid; $3,000 the campaigns of Domb and Squilla each paid; and $3,200 Gym’s campaign paid.

“By violating the city’s campaign finance law, (the PAC and Price) were able to keep their activity from public view,” the board’s enforcement director Michael J. Cooke wrote in the board’s June lawsuit against the PAC. “They saw potential penalties for late filing of campaign finance reports as merely the cost of doing business and, apparently, well worth the benefit of hiding their financial activities for as long as possible.”

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