Certain vagaries in Pennsylvania’s campaign finance rules are at the forefront of an ongoing issue regarding the election reporting of the Hampden Township Republican Association.
The association must file new campaign finance reports after previously filing a report that appears to erroneously lump together contributions under incorrect dates, the Cumberland County Bureau of Elections said.
The filings also raise a question to which there is no clear answer in Pennsylvania law, the question of when a committee or candidate has to acknowledge in-kind contributions.
That question was originally raised when the Cumberland County Bureau of Elections investigated a citizen complaint shortly before the May 21 municipal primary.
The complaint was that the Hampden Township Republican Association had not filed any campaign paperwork for that cycle despite having financed a large number of yard signs for Michelle Nestor, a candidate for one of the Hampden Township seats on the board of Cumberland Valley School District.
The association’s response, according to the bureau’s findings, was that it had indeed paid for Nestor’s materials — the tagline “paid for by the Hampden Township Republican Association” appears in small print on the signs — but that it did not report the support because it did not know the cost of the signs at the time of that filing.
In late June, the Hampden Township Republican Association filed a post-primary campaign finance report indicating a debt of $4,588 to a sign maker for the materials. Nestor listed the same amount as an in-kind contribution from the association.
The filing lists the “date debt incurred” as May 19, two days before the election, although Nestor’s signs were placed for view before that date.
Sam Giannelli, the Hampden Township Republican Association’s treasurer, said the invoice for the signs was not obtained until May 19.
“Michelle went and ordered them, but we had agreed to pay for these signs,” Gianelli said.
He asked that any further questions be tendered in writing to the association’s post office box.
Under the state election code, candidates and committees must report all “valuable things” that are “received” during a given election reporting period. Such things must be reported with a value that is the difference between the “usual and normal charge” for such a good or service and the compensation, or lack thereof, that was actually tendered by the political recipient.
The question of when value is created matters in this instance of campaign finance reporting. Is value intrinsic to the physical good, and thus received with the good itself, or is value created only when a cost and compensation is realized?
It’s enough of a gray area that some observers have suggested the state needs to clarify its language for campaign finance reporting to prevent abuse.
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The City of Philadelphia’s municipal campaign law further defines in-kind contributions with language stating “if a person makes an in-kind contribution by providing goods or services directly to a candidate’s campaign, the date of acceptance of that contribution is the date that the candidate’s campaign receives the goods or services.”
The Philadelphia regulation also says, “If a person makes an in-kind contribution by paying or agreeing to pay a third party to provide goods or services to a candidate’s campaign, the date of acceptance of that contribution is the date the goods or services are provided or the date payment is made, whichever is earlier.”
“State law is not lucid on this,” said Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia-based attorney who specializes in campaign finance and election law. “There really is no guidance for local agencies.”
Cumberland County’s Bureau of Elections isn’t in a position to prove who knew what about the prospective value of campaign signs and when, according to director Bethany Salzarulo.
“We don’t know exactly when all this stuff was done so we have to go by what they’re telling us,” Salzarulo said. “If they’re telling me they didn’t know the value of the signs, there’s really no other way for me to go about it.”
This is the situation the Philadelphia policy is intended to combat, Bonin said. If not, candidates and committees can conceal who they support indefinitely by simply not bothering to figure out the value of support.
“In my opinion, not knowing what something is worth puts the onus on you to find out,” Bonin said. “It shouldn’t be that you can avoid campaign finance reporting by just declining to find out what a contribution is worth.”
Regardless of any determination as to when an in-kind contribution legally occurs, the Hampden Township Republican Association will have to re-do its 2019 filings.
The original citizen complaint in May noted that the association definitely hit the $250 contribution limit for required reporting given that the campaign finance report for the Friends of Nate Silcox committee reported a $250 contribution to the Hampden Township Republican Association on April 30.
Pre-primary campaign reports for 2019 encompassed activity up through May 6. On May 7, Silcox’s committee reported giving another $1,000 to the Hampden Township Republican Association.
The association was told after the primary that it would need to file a late pre-primary report with Silcox’s first contribution and any others that occurred on May 6 or prior, according to Salzarulo, in addition to a separate post-primary report for activity occurring May 7 and later.
However, the committee did not do so. Instead, it only filed a post-primary report that includes a single $1,250 contribution from Silcox’s committee, with a May 28 date of receipt.
The post-primary report also includes two other contributions that must go on a pre-primary report — an April 29 contribution of $100 from Friends of Mike Regan, and a contribution of $300 on the same date from Friends of Gregg [sic] Rothman.