Philly Super PACs to show their cards more often

     Pa. Sen. Anthony Williams (left) and Democratic candidate for Philadelphia mayor, Jim Kenney. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Pa. Sen. Anthony Williams (left) and Democratic candidate for Philadelphia mayor, Jim Kenney. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    In quick and painless fashion, Philadelphia City Council has voted to impose some pretty demanding reporting requirements on big-money players in future Philadelphia elections.

    We just saw a Democratic mayoral primary in which three super PACs spent millions on the race, and voters had little hard information about their activities because the state election code required them to file donor and expense reports only once all year. That was on May 8, 11 days before the primary election.

    Under the new rules, any group that spends $5,000 or more to influence a city election will have to file a detailed report six weeks before the election, and three times after that, with the last report due a week before Election Day.

    “With the current law, there’s just not enough disclosure,” said Shane Creamer, executive director of the city Board of Ethics, which recommended the change.

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    Council isn’t requiring candidate committees to meet the same requirements, but it is increasing their reporting requirement also. Until now, candidates for city office had to file only once in the year of the primary, that report due 11 days before the election. Now they’ll also have to file one additional report, six weeks before Election Day.

    All those reports have to be filed electronically with the Ethics Board, so they should quickly be available online.

    The down side

    I’m all for getting more information sooner from people spending money to affect our votes, but the new rules add a layer of compliance for candidates who are already confused about what they’re supposed to do.

    Depending on the office sought, candidates may be required to file reports with the Philadelphia Board of Election or the Pennsylvania Department of State and separately with the Ethics Board in an electronic format.

    Council’s action will create a new requirement for city candidates that’s different from the state election code, and yet another set of requirements for non-candidate committees spending money on a city race.

    Veteran election lawyer Kevin Greenberg, who says candidates already have many rules to follow, says imposing new city deadlines will mean many candidates slip up and get fined.

    “It’s a gotcha system, and that’s not anybody’s intent,” Greenberg told me. “We want disclosure so people know what’s going on. At the same time, it’s got to be an easy enough system to comply with that it doesn’t become another burden on people running for office.”

    Greenberg says the best system would be a uniform set of requirements that could be met with one electronic filing shared with everyone. No argument here, but that’s up to the state Legislature, and it’s not exactly reform-minded when it comes to election law.

    Unanswered question

    On Thursday, we’ll get reports required under the state election code from the super PACs active in the primary election (as well as all the candidates), so we’ll get a closer look at their fundraising and spending through Election Day.

    I’ll be interested to see if a report is filed by Leadership Matters, a group formed late in the campaign to attack former Councilman Jim Kenney. That group organized as a nonprofit corporation, a technique used in national races to shield donors from disclosure.

    The city Board of Ethics expects such groups to file campaign finance reports in Philadelphia races.I contacted Chris Lapetina, the Washington-based consultant who’s executive director of Leadership Matters, and he wrote in an email Friday that if the group is required to file, then of course it will.

    I’ll let you know how that comes out.

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