Ethics Board, Council Spat Over Campaign-Finance Fines

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 27, 2010

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Currently, the Ethics Board has wide discretion to dole out fines for campaign-finance violations. City Council is trying to change that with ethics bills currently under consideration, which would lock violations penalties into slots starting at $300.

Legislation introduced by Council Majority Leader Marian Tasco—and sponsored by the 14 other Council members—ostensibly derive from recommendations made in December by the mayor’s Task Force on Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform, which is a separate body from the Ethics Board.

On the campaign-finance violations, the Task Force recommended a sliding scale of penalties “up to and including a ban from seeking or holding elective office or employment with the City.” Tasco's bill instead eliminates the disqualification language and creates a strict penalty schedule, with minor violations set to cost candidates $300 each. Essentially, Council is seeking to eliminate the Ethics Board’s discretion on how to levy fines.

“We’ve had problems with them interpreting issues that aren’t illegal and fining people,” Tasco told PhillyNow.  “We have not eliminated the fines; we are just putting them in one section of the code so they’re clear.”

The penalty-scale plan stems from last year’s spat between the Ethics Board and Council regarding charges brought against Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s campaign team for violations during the 2007 election. Quiñones-Sánchez requested a hearing before the board to explain her position, but the Ethics Board was pursuing action in the Court of Common Pleas and said they were constitutionally barred from hearing the case themselves due to the elegantly worded ban on the commingling of prosecutorial and adjudicatory functions.

Quiñones-Sánchez is not satisfied with the Board’s explanation for their refusal to listen to her case. “They never gave me an explanation,” she said. “They engaged me in a public discussion via the press so I never had an opportunity to talk to them.”

The Board had released a press release calling her request “highly unusual” and contrary to their regulations.

The Councilwoman, whose campaign was eventually fined $2,250 for three violations, denied that the penalty plan is a retaliatory act against the board but said: “If they can’t use their discretion in a responsible way, we’re going to give them parameters.”

Tasco agreed, saying Council has “no intentions of limiting [the Ethics Board’s] power, but we don’t want them to abuse their power.”

“The Board's enforcement record demonstrates that we have been consistent, fair and lenient,” Shane Creamer, executive director of the Ethics Board, refuted in an email. "No, the Board is not satisfied with the level of penalties in the current draft bill. We think that a better approach is the 'sliding scale' for penalties recommended by the Task Force, which would allow penalties to be adjusted by mitigating and aggravating factors."

“It does make some sense that penalties are attached to the severity of the violation, but where there’s room for discussion is what’s a serious violation? The rub is coming up with a common agreement on the more or less serious violations,” said Nutter Spokesman Doug Oliver.

Several board members expressed concern at the hearing that the $300 fines would just be considered a cost of doing business and no deterrent against wrongdoing, although Ethics Board Chair Richard Glazer did say that “for me, it’s never been about the money; it’s more the public exposure.”

Council has pushed back a hearing scheduled for today until May 12 to ruminate on the Ethics Board's recommendations. Considering the chilly atmosphere that exists between the Board and Council, we aren’t optimistic they will reach a resolution that pleases both parties, but we’re crossing our fingers.

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