Explainer: How Mayor Luke can do (almost) anything he wants with your contributions

Published by Andrew McGill on .

ravenstahlThinBy now, the revelation that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is behind the recent onslaught of ads attacking candidate Bill Peduto is old news.

Well, until the next onslaught.

But some of you erstwhile Ravenstahl supporters — perhaps even a few "14th warders" — may be wondering how your contributions to the mayor's re-election campaign, defunct though it is, have now been turned to slam his opponent.

The answer? According to the Pennsylvania elections code, the mayor can do anything he wants with your money — as long as it is used to "influence the outcome of an election."

From the Pennsylvania Department of State's FAQ on campaign finance:

Residual Funds (Excess Funds)

What are the requirements for residual funds of a candidate after an election or when a candidate retires from office?

Residual funds can either be:

• Used for any expenditure to influence the outcome of an election. See § 1621(d); or

• returned, pro rata, to the contributors by the candidate or treasurer of the political committee. See § 1630.

If the funds are used to influence the outcome of an election, the expenditure does not have to influence a particular election, rather, the expenditure just has to be made in an effort to influence an election. The funds can be made to influence the outcome of future elections generally. See § 1621(d).

Note the last paragraph: Contributions aren't even restricted to the current election. If he so chose, Mr. Ravenstahl could dole out advertisement money well into his dotage.

"When you give to a candidate, the assumption might be that it's for their own re-election purposes," said Chris Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. "But the reality is that they can use it for any political function they feel like."

So concurs Terry Madonna, a Franklin and Marshall University professor and pollster.

"I've often raised the question as to whether that's a wise policy. simply because that may not be the intention of the donors," he said.

The elections code does allow for a candidate to return contributions to donors in proportion to what they gave. In 2010, then-U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter returned some campaign funds to donors after switching parties.

Candidates commonly use campaign funds to assist allies, helping them pay down debt or launch a new ad campaign. But it's rarer to see as direct a link as the one Mr. Ravenstahl provided last week, with his own committee signing off on an ad buy.

And as he's already said: Be ready for more. There's likely hundreds of thousands of dollars left in his campaign account, whatever that means now.

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