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City camp finance law is toothless

Published by Tim McNulty on .

The city of Pittsburgh's new campaign finance law -- which was supposed to have its first impact this year -- is so far turning out to be unenforceable and toothless.

Jeff Koch's District 3 city council campaign filed a complaint with the county elections elections board last week alleging incumbent Bruce Kraus violated the law several times last year, by taking contributions over the limits of $1,000 per individual and $2,000 per PAC. Kraus himself sent a letter to the county elections department notifying it of the transactions back in January, but got no response.

That is because the county has no oversight power over the 2009 city bill.

"We have no legal authority to investigate alleged violations of a city of Pittsburgh ordinance," elections department director Mark Wolosik told us in an interview.

The 2009 bill -- which Kraus and others approved in a 8-0 vote in April 2009 with Darlene Harris abstaining -- barred city council candidates from taking more than the amounts cited above per election cycle. The bill says cycles begin "on the day after the general election for the office or seat which the candidate seeks and ends on the day of the next general election for that seat or office."

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It leaves enforcement to the county elections board and includes penalties of $2,000 per violation. It took effect on Jan. 1, 2010 -- since this is the first city election year since then, this is the first year the rules have been tested.

Kraus wrote the elections department (see above) Jan. 31 saying he took seven donations over the limits, two from PACS and five from individuals. His letter said the funds would be "designated for use in an election following the current cycle for the Primary Election taking place on 5/17/2001." The letter is attached to his 2010 year-end report.

The Kraus campaign says it is following federal contribution rules, which view primary and general cycles separately and thereby allow candidates to double-up contributions early in the year. The Koch campaign says the incumbent is violating the letter of the city law.

Rebuffed by the elections department, the Koch camp is filing an ethics complaint against Kraus and may file a Common Pleas Court complaint, as the ordinance also allows, campaign manager Tim Brinton said.

"Nowhere in the law that [Kraus] wrote does it state that this is acceptable, and every other politician running for city office is following Bruce's finance law to the letter. There is no way ensure that he is not spending his illegal contributions, and we all know that appearing to have more money on hand can garner more donations," Brinton said.

Kraus campaign manager Justin Wasser said "it is our understanding that there is nothing in the law prohibiting contributions from being made for a later covered election, once the contribution limit is reached for the current covered election.

"Unlike federal campaigns, where there are procedures for reporting a contribution as described above, the city code does not address this matter, so the attachment included in the 2010 annual campaign finance report goes above and beyond required reporting for the sake of transparency. Our only interest is to be fully transparent and in complete compliance with the spirit of the campaign finance law."

The issue may not get sorted out before the May 17 primary, but it may have more of an impact on the mayor's race in two years. Mayoral limits are twice that in council races, but the caps were expected to be a lift to anyone challenging Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's financial power.

Council's budget chairman and Ravenstahl critic Bill Peduto was the main author of the campaign finance bill. He said the ordinance wasn't completely toothless, since citizens could seek penalties in Common Pleas. But the reason the ordinance left the county in charge of oversight, he said, was executive Dan Onorato had promised to implement overlapping rules on the county level.

He never did.

"It would have been great if the county had kept their word and adopted campaign finance reform on their own, but without it, you can still go to court," Peduto said.

The latest round of campaign finance reports covering giving from Jan. 1 through May 2 are due from candidates Friday afternoon.

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