Did Helen Gym Trip Up on the City’s Campaign Finance Law?

"It sure looks suspicious," says Committee of Seventy prez David Thornburgh.

Helen Gym | Photo by Alex Hogan

City Council candidate Helen Gym | Photo by Alex Hogan

[Update, 6:08 p.m.]: The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers PAC and the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania PAC both employ the same treasurer, Jack Steinberg, according to the Department of State’s website.

[Original, 2:39 p.m.]: Philadelphia’s campaign finance law is as strict as a nun: City candidates can accept no more than $11,500 annually from an individual political action committee.

Philly even has a rule on the books to prevent donors from evading the limit by making what is known as a “pass-through” contribution. PACs are barred from writing a maxed-out check to a candidate, then writing another check to a separate PAC, and asking that PAC to donate the funds to the same candidate.

Did City Council At-Large candidate Helen Gym just trip up on that rule?

On February 9, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers PAC donated $11,500 to Gym’s campaign, according to state campaign finance records. More than two weeks later, the PFT donated $11,500 to the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania PAC.

Then, AFT Pennsylvania wrote Gym a check for the exact same amount of money — $11,500 — on March 9, records show. Worth noting: This is AFT Pennsylvania’s only expenditure listed in its most recent campaign finance report, which tracks spending from New Year’s Day to March 30. Also, the only donation AFT Pennsylvania received for an amount larger than $50 in the same time period was the check from the PFT.

“It sure looks suspicious,” says David Thornburgh, president of the elections watchdog Committee of Seventy, adding that the donations are “fairly close in date to each other, and it’s the same amount of money.”

But Gym’s campaign manager, Brendan McPhillips, said “it shouldn’t be surprising” that AFT Pennsylvania is supporting Gym.

“She’s the only candidate in this race with a 20-year track record fighting for equity and justice in education,” said McPhillips. “If you have questions about how AFT/PFT made their contributions, you should reach out to them. The campaign’s only involvement in that process was reaching out to ask for their endorsement and support.”

A spokesman for the PFT declined comment. The AFT did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Michael Cooke, enforcement director at the city’s Board of Ethics, said there are two different ways that a PAC’s donation can be considered a “pass-through.”

“One is if the original donor directs, suggests or requests that the intermediary committee gives to the candidate,” he said. “The other is if the first political committee has provided the majority funding for the intermediary political committee in the 12 months prior to the intermediary committee’s contribution to the candidate.”

The PFT has not provided the majority of AFT Pennsylvania’s funding in the last year, according to campaign finance reports. (It did supply more than a third of it from April 1, 2014 to March 30, 2015, however. AFT Pennsylvania raised a total of about $33,600 in that period, documents show. The PFT’s contribution is also the only PAC donation listed during this time.)

That means the law was broken only if the PFT directed, suggested or requested — “whether in a direct, indirect, express or implied manner,” per ethics regulations — that AFT Pennsylvania spend part or all of its contribution on Gym’s campaign.

The legislation banning PACs from making excess contributions using “pass-through” donations passed shortly before the 2011 primary election. The ordinance was enacted largely in response to former City Councilman Bill Green’s acceptance of multiple large contributions from Local 98, the electrician’s union, that had been “passed-through” other 98-affiliated PACs. At the time, there was no law prohibiting such “pass-throughs.”

According to Cooke, candidate campaigns can be held responsible for accepting “pass-through” contributions, not just any PACs that may have coordinated the donations.

Cooke says the Board of Ethics has not yet taken any enforcement action or reached a settlement agreement as a result of “pass-through” violations. A campaign committee found to have violated the law would have to return the excess contribution and could be compelled to pay a fine of up to $2,000 maximum.