It’s a mind-numbing day in Philadelphia, and not just because it’s the day after Andy Reid’s press conference.
Today is also the day after city elected officials had to file their
annual campaign finance reports. And now they’re ours for the viewing.
That’s important since you can tell an awful lot about your elected
officials by learning who gave them money and how they spent it.
But this being Philadelphia, these “annual reports” don’t actually cover
an entire year. In fact, if you really want the Full Monty on
everyone’s campaign war chests, you have to go back to several different
campaign finance report filings that, in some cases, span over several
years. Confused? So are we.
To help sort it all out, this HOW PHILLY WORKS takes the plunge into the
wonderful world of campaign finance. We’ll tell you where the campaign
finance reports are posted online and where to look for the really
juicy stuff. But bear with us: the city’s campaign database is
mystifying. (We spent hours last night just trying to piece things
together.) It actually made us feel sorry for the elected officials who
have to file these reports.
If you discover an easy way to make sense of the campaign finance database, please let us know.
- February 1, 2012
First, what’s the point of campaign finance reports?
Voters deserve to know who candidates get their money from and what they spend their money on. Suppose, for example, you’re passionate about gun control laws. If a candidate for City Council got money from the National Rifle Association, this could impact whether or not you vote for that candidate. Without campaign finance reports, you would never know.
Who had to file reports yesterday?
All city elected officials (except for judges) – those who ran in 2011 plus those already in city office – must file the annual campaign finance reports.
What does the report have to include?
The annual campaign finance report has to list a candidate’s contributions, receipts, expenditures and debts.
Annual report….That means the report will show those things for all of 2011, right?
Ah, not exactly. Candidates who ran for city office during 2011 were required to file a series of campaign finance reports throughout last year. The annual report due today from those candidates only covers the period since the last report: from November 28, 2011 to December 31, 2011.
Then why is it called an “annual” report?
Good question. We struggled with this one. It turns out that annual reports only cover a full calendar year in the years elected officials aren’t running for office. In the years they do, annual reports sum up just their post-campaign activities. Other reporting happens before and after the spring primary and November general election that covers the bulk of their money.
I’m lost. A little help, please?
OK. Take the city’s new Council President Darrell Clarke. The report he filed back on January 31, 2007 covered a full year - from January 1, 2006 through December 31, 2006. Why? Because he didn’t run for office in 2006 and didn’t raise or spend any money that required him to file reports at any point during 2006. It was a different story when he ran for office in 2007. That year, he had to file a series of campaign finance reports. And that’s also true now, because he ran for re-election in 2011.
I gave to a candidate for City Council last year. Will any report mention my name?
Not if you gave less than $50.01. But let’s say you gave $50.02. The candidate’s report covering the time period in which you gave has to report your name, address, the amount you gave and when you gave it.
will it list where i work when i give money?
Consider giving no more than $249. Candidates have to list a contributor’s employer only if the contributor gives more than $250.
How can I tell what a candidate spent money on?
That’s on the report too. Suppose your City Council candidate spent $100 for pizzas and soda to feed her hard-working campaign volunteers. The candidate has to report where she bought the pizza (e.g., Domino’s), Domino’s address, the amount she paid ($100), when she paid it and what it was for (e.g., feeding campaign volunteers).
Sounds like there might be some juicy tidbits in the reports.
You never know what you’re going to find. Your best chance for finding something interesting is in the reports that come out right before or right after a primary or general election. You could learn that your wife gave money to someone you wouldn’t vote for in a million years.
I better not find out that she spent $100,000.
You won’t be the only person interested in that news. Since, in 2011, an individual could contribute no more than $2,600 annually to a candidate for city office, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics (which enforces the city’s campaign finance law that sets those limits) will also be paying attention. (The limit for individual donors went up to $2,900 this year.)
What can happen if someone gives more than the limit?
A candidate who accepted over-the-limit donations may be fined three times the excess amount, or $2,000, whichever is less.
What if someone who had to file a report yesterday didn’t do it?
The penalty for a late filing of a campaign finance report is $250, but each day after the due date is considered a separate violation. The candidate can be fined up to $2,000 for the first 30 days. After that, the fine is $1,000 for every additional 30-day period or any part of that 30-day period.
Do some people deliberately file late reports?
Late reports happen all the time. There are probably lots of reasons for this. But one could be that a candidate prefers to pay a fine than to reveal some of his or her donors at a certain time (such as right before Election Day). According to a Philadelphia Inquirer story four days before the May 2011 primary, a City Council candidate admitted “I don’t want to tip my hand, to give my opponent a clear idea of what I’m doing and what I’m not doing.” (He didn’t win anyway.)
Now you got me interested. Where can I find campaign finance reports?
Campaign finance reports are submitted electronically to the Board of Ethics and posted through the city’s Records Department. You can see them here
HELP! I just looked and can’t figure this out!
Join the club. The Committee of Seventy has been urging (begging) the city to fix the database so it can easily be searched and understood by the public. In an age when you can instantly learn how much your neighbor’s mortgage is, the money going to elected officials should be simple to look up.
Can’t we do something about this?
In response to our 2011 Mayoral Candidates’ Ethics Agenda, Mayor Nutter pledged to “work with the Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) and the Records Department to accomplish this goal.” We also heard City Council will be holding hearings on improving the city’s websites. We’ll be begging them too.
**********There are many more parts to the city’s campaign finance ordinance than what’s in this HOW PHILLY WORKS. If you are desperate for more, you can find a lot of information on the Board of Ethics’ website, which can be found here.
If you want us to dig deeper into the campaign finance law, give us a holler at firstname.lastname@example.org.