David Oh Fights for His Political Life

The GOP Councilman has admitted to a significant campaign finance violation. Will it cost him his job?

Photo courtesy of City Council's Flickr

Photo courtesy of City Council’s Flickr

It’s been a bad year for politicians in Pennsylvania, especially those with a “D” next to their names: Kathleen KaneChaka Fattah, Rob McCord. The list goes on and on.

On Monday, Republican Councilman David Oh reminded the public that lawbreaking isn’t exclusively a Democratic affair. In a settlement agreement with the Philadelphia Board of Ethics, Oh admitted to taking an illegal campaign donation in the 2015 primary election and agreed to pay a $2,000 fine for his violation.

And with that, the City Council At-Large race this November got a lot more interesting.

Under the city’s campaign finance laws, individual donors can contribute a maximum of $2,900 to a city candidate each year. But when John Lee, an Oh supporter, approached the Councilman and told him he was willing to donate $20,000, Oh didn’t tell Lee that was against the law. Instead, Oh laid out exactly how Lee could do it: by cutting separate checks to his campaign committee and a PAC known as the “Committee to Elect Dave Henderson. The implicit message, of course, was that all that money would eventually get to Oh.

Here’s exactly what Oh texted Lee, according to the settlement agreement. It’s pretty damning stuff:


Great talking to you. Thanks for your help and support!

For Philadelphia Council races, an individual is limited to $2,900 per year. A joint account of two adults is limited to $5,800. Corporate checks are prohibited so it must be a personal or partnership check.

Your personal check should be made payable to “Citizens for David Oh.” I can send someone to pick it up at your office or you can mail it to David Oh, 5813 Thomas Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143.

If you and your wife can contribute $5,000 this year and again in January 2015, that would be a big help at $10,000. In addition, if your parents-in-law are able to contribute $5,000 in 2014, as a couple, that would be a total of $15,000.

Finally, please write a check to “Committee to Elect Dave Henderson” in the amount of $5,000. Mail it to me or bring it to your office and I’ll have someone pick it up. The total would be $20,000.

If your parents-in-law are not able to contribute $5,000, then please write the check to “Committee to Elect Dave Henderson” in the amount of $10,000.

Thanks very much! David

This is not a case in which a candidate accepted an excess contribution unknowingly, as an Ethics Board investigation found recently happened with Council candidate Helen Gym. Rather, Oh orchestrated the end run himself. Oddly, Oh’s defense is that what he did was totally legal in years past, and he didn’t realize until recently that the city’s campaign finance laws had been updated.

“I did not understand the law had changed. I thought it was legal to do what I did,” Oh told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

The problem is, what Oh did was never legal under Philadelphia’s campaign finance laws. It was once kosher for political action committees to make what are known as “pass-through” donations, but Ethics Board executive director Shane Creamer says that has never been true for individual donors. (Oh also told Citified, “I made a mistake and I take full responsibility for it. Once I learned that it was not within the ethical guidelines, I returned the money immediately and fully cooperated with the Ethics Board.”)

So what does this mean for the City Council At-Large race? Our prediction is that a bloodbath will soon ensue among the GOP candidates. Typically, Republicans have only won two at-large seats on City Council. (This is because two Council positions are set aside for members of a “non-majority” party under Philadelphia’s city charter.) Five Republicans are running in the general election.

As incumbents, GOP Council members Oh and Dennis O’Brien are the favorites this year. But Republican challengers Terry Tracy, Al Taubenberger and Daniel Tinney are all serious candidates, and many of them, if not all, will go after Oh in the months ahead. O’Brien performed better in the 2011 general election than in the primary, making Oh even more of a target now.

In fact, Tracy has already attacked Oh. On Tuesday, the young and feisty Tracy issued this statement: “Councilman Oh’s recent admission of city ethics violations is a disservice to all those who have supported his efforts as a reform candidate in the past. Perhaps more troubling than the actual violation is his public response. David claims not to know the law and demonstrates no contrition.”

But will Oh’s illegal activity actually cost him his job? Oh, for his part, seems confident. “I think voters are very good at weeding out substance from subterfuge,” he said.

And on one hand, the city’s Republican Party is not abandoning him. Joe DeFelice, executive director of Philly’s GOP, said the party has traditionally supported all five Republican nominees in the general election, and will again this year. “The Republican voters of Philadelphia have selected these five candidates,” he said, “and it’s our job as a party to elect them.” So Oh’s got that going for him.

Another thing that could benefit Oh is the fact that Philly voters have been unfazed by campaign finance transgressions in the past. Take Democratic Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who was hit with a record $48,800 of fines and repayments in 2013 after she used campaign funds to pay back a personal loan. In this year’s primary election for five Democratic City Council At-Large nominees, she finished second among 16 candidates. Perhaps voters aren’t paying close attention to the violations — to be fair, campaign finance law is often complex and boring, which is a deadly combination — or maybe they don’t much care because campaign contributions are not public funds.

At the same time, Oh was at risk even before the Ethics Board made public its settlement agreement. A viable Independent candidate named Andrew Stober is gunning for one of the two non-majority Council seats.

Plus, Oh has run as a reformer in the past, and the city’s GOP has long pitched itself as an alternative to what it sees as Philadelphia’s corrupt and inept Democratic Party. So maybe voters will care about more about Oh’s infractions than they did about Brown’s. After all, it’s hard to argue that you’re the more ethical candidate when you’ve admitted to not only taking, but orchestrating, an illegal campaign donation.