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Running for Judge: The Money Game

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

 

Running for judge in Philadelphia is still a money game.

This year, the candidates who ran for Common Pleas and Municipal Court spent nearly $2.3 million on their campaigns, the highest total ever in a judicial election in the city.

There were 32 candidates who ran for 11 vacancies - seven on Common Pleas and four on Municipal Court.

These are zero visibility races, poorly covered - if at all - by the media.  Voters generally have no idea who the candidates are. The candidates themselves usually don't have enough money to run radio or television ad campaigns to raise their ID.

So where does the money go?To the city's 69 Democratic ward organizations and to the consultants who can (or claim they can) get access to key ward leaders.

This year, 61 cents of every dollar spent by the judicial candidates went to ward organizations or consultants.  In turn, the money is used to pay committee people to tout the ward or party's ticket by handing out sample ballots to voters to guide them to the endorsed candidates. It is called "street money." With so much cash flowing on the streets, there are always questions about how the money was spent and whether the candidates followed state law on disclosure. 

When it comes to ignoring or violating the state's campaign finance law, Philadelphia is a repeat offender. This year was no exception. Metropolis examined the campaign spending reports of the judicial candidates and found examples of questionable or undocumented spending.  Here are the specifics:

Missing in Action

Lopez Thompson, who ran eighth out of 10 candidates for Municipal Court, is missing in action when it comes to his campaign reports.  He has not filed any reports this year with the city or the state on how much he raised and spent.  Thompson did not respond to calls and emails to his West Philadelphia law office.  State law requires candidates to file periodic campaign financial disclosure reports in this home county and  with the Department of State in Harrisburg.

The Ghost Patrons

Two candidates had ghost patrons who appear to have given thousands to help their candidacies, but never disclosed details of those contributions. At issue is a $35,000 "assessment" levied made by Democratic City Committee on each candidate it supports. In turn, the money was pooled and handed out to committee people  before the May primary.

In all, the 11 endorsed candidates should have paid the city party organization $385,000 for the primary.  Two candidates did not. Roxanne Covington, an endorsed candidate who won a Common Pleas judgeship this year, is not listed as paying the assessment.  Robert Coleman, another winner of a Common Pleas judgeship, was listed as paying $15,000 to City Committee, instead of the required $35,000.

Did the two pay the assessment or did party chairman, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, give them a discount?  Brady could not be reached for comment , but other party sources said it was unlikely any candidate was exempted from the full assessment fee.  "We don't do discounts," was the way one ward leader put it. This means Covington's and Coleman's fees were paid by third parties - though by whom and how much they did not disclose.

According to Leslie Amoros, spokeswoman for the Department of State, the law requires any such contributions to be listed by the candidate on their disclosure report as an "in-kind contribution." There is a separate section in the reports for in-kind contributions.

A third endorsed candidate, Joyce Eubanks, did have outside help in paying her party assessment.  Her daughter Chenia Eubanks, paid $10,000; Local 98 of the Electricians Union paid $5,000 and Genesis IV, a political action committee run by Edgar Campbell Jr., paid $20,000. But, Eubanks reported these payments in her campaign finance report as in-kind contributions.  She compiled with the letter of the law.

Who paid for Coleman and Covington? One source told Metropolis that Covington's $35,000 fee was paid by Tom Kline, a prominent local trial lawyer.  Kline is listed on City Committee records as having contributed $35,000 to the party before the primary.  However, Metropolis could not confirm that Kline was Covington's patron because neither Kline not Covington responded to requests for comment.

Who paid Coleman's $20,000 also remains unknown.  Coleman did not respond to telephone and email requests for information about the money.

The Mystery PAC

Finally, there is the case of the mystery PAC.  A political action committee called the Working Families PAC did register with the Department of State this year.  In the primary election, reports shows that candidates and other political action committees gave Working Families a total of $80,275 for what is variously listed as rallies, get-out-the-vote expenses and consulting. 

How the money was spent remains another mystery. To date, Working Families PAC has not filed a single disclosure report with the city or state Elections Bureau.

Judicial candidates and campaign managers told Metropolis that the person behind Working Families is Marion Wimbush, a long-time Democratic activist from East Oak Lane.  Wimbush, a committeeman in the 49th Ward and also head of the Oak Lane Democrats, and is known for holding a pre-election luncheon and rally for candidates each spring at the Oak Lane Diner.

According to state records, Wimbush is listed as chair of the PAC and Katrima Staten is listed as its treasurer.  After several telephone messages that went unanswered, Wimbush did respond on Sunday night (Dec. 6th) and said that he did intend to report the spending by his PAC in the near future. The report, Wimbush said, had been delayed because his accountant had not completed the paperwork. For the record, the first report was due to the state 10 months ago.

As mentioned, the Philadelphia has been a repeat offender when it comes to the state campaign finance law and there have been state and federal investigations over the years into street money.  In late October, the U.S. Attorney's Office charged two local political consultants with tax evasion.

One of them was Peter Truman, a former legislator and ward leader, whose company, Dan Silo, often acted as a broker between judicial candidates and ward leaders. This year, judicial candidates paid $27,000 to Dan Silo for its services.

The government charged Truman with failing to report consulting income estimated at $700,000 between 2001 and 2007.  He has denied the charges.

This week, Metropolis wrote the Department of State asking it to look into the apparent violations of the law listed in the examples above.

 

 

 


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