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Mayoral candidates deal with 'messy' campaign finance rules

This is the first election cycle in which candidates seeking elected office in Pittsburgh must abide by a 2015 campaign-finance ordinance, and at least one mayoral candidate appears to be stumbling over a requirement limiting how much a supporter can provide.

As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was first to report last month, some candidates have delayed filing their monthly reports of financial activity, and City Councilwoman Darlene Harris has so far refused to disclose any reports at all. Meanwhile, her fellow mayoral challenger, the Rev. John Welch, appears to have received backing from two key supporters in excess of the city’s limits.

The ordinance limits individuals from contributing more than $2,700 to a candidate for city office. Audrey Murrell, who is Rev. Welch’s campaign treasurer, contributed that amount on Jan. 26. But earlier that month, she also supported him with a $1,506.20 “in kind” contribution to pay for a banquet.

Similarly, campaign finance records show that the Rev. Rodney Lyde — who frequently appears alongside Rev. Welch at rallies — has contributed $600 in cash to the Welch campaign, along with having provided over $2,900 in “social media promotion fees.”

It is not clear how Rev. Lyde arrived at the value of those services: He did not return a call on Tuesday. But Ms. Murrell, an associate dean who directs an ethics program at the University of Pittsburgh, called the ordinance “messy.”

State law is no help: Pennsylvania imposes no limits on contributions to politicians. And Ms. Murrell said “I pore over these requirements, and it’s difficult to get clarity. I could find nothing [in the ordinance] that says in-kind contributions count against the total.”

“If you expect transparency from candidates, you have to have clarity in the regulations,” she said. “Otherwise good people get tripped up in a bad process.”

The city’s ordinance does not specifically discuss in-kind donations. But it does define a “political contribution” as including “[m]oney, gifts, forgiveness of debts, loans, or things having a monetary value incurred or received by a candidate for City elected office or a political committee.” And the ordinance bases its contribution caps on regulations promulgated by the Federal Elections Commission, which does include donations against contribution limits.

“The city ordinance is clear that in-kind contributions and anything of value counts as a contribution underneath the law,” said City Councilman Dan Gilman, who authored the 2015 rules (and who is a former council staffer for Mayor Bill Peduto, whose re-election Rev. Welch is contesting).

Ms. Murrell and Rev. Welch both noted that his campaign was, unlike that of Mrs. Harris, following the requirement to report monthly activity reports. (The Welch campaign initially failed to file a report covering January’s activity, but did so soon after the Post-Gazette reported on the issue.) It’s also not unheard-of for campaigns to receive contributions in excess of regulations, cases that are often resolved by a partial refund. For example, records suggest that Mr. Peduto’s own campaign received a $15,000 check from Steamfitters Local 449 in February 2016, and refunded $10,000 of it the same day.

But those contributions typically don’t come from sources so closely tied to a campaign, and Rev. Welch said Tuesday that he would await guidance from a more authoritative source than, say, a newspaper blog. (Clarification: This was your correspondent being self-effacing, as opposed to the candidate suggesting Early Returns is anything other than a rock-solid purveyor of information.) The city’s Ethics Hearing Board has jurisdiction over the campaign finance rules. 

“Until the ordinance is specifically clear,” Rev. Welch said, “we’re going to do what we’re doing.”