making local government more ethical

Dealing with "Independent" Expenditures at the Local Level

For those of you who are tired of talk about "witch hunts," this quote will be a great relief:
"I'm concerned about a zealous ethics staff chasing down rabbit holes when there is no rabbit."
These are the words of Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia election lawyer, as quoted on WHYY"s News Works website on Sunday. He was referring to proposed amendments to the Philadelphia ethics board's campaign finance regulations concerning the coordination of "independent" expenditures (attached; see below - underlined material primarily on page 18-19). A second public hearing was held last week on the proposed amendments.

Bonin's "rabbit" is coordinated expenditures by an independent individual or political committee. The problem, from the point of view of those making "independent" expenditures, is that, as Bonin put it, "We all talk to each other all the time." This is why the rabbit metaphor is so apt:  communications between candidates, candidate committees, independent committees, and those who run their campaigns reproduce like everyone's favorite rodent.

The question is, do the rabbits look alike because they're rabbits, or because they're closely related?

It's very hard to describe what a coordinated expenditure is. One reason is that it isn't necessarily expenditures that are coordinated. Strategies are coordinated, too. In fact, it is a common strategy for a candidate's campaign to put rabbits out into the world, while independent committees put out rats and badgers.

This is why the most important provision in the amendments is the following part of the description of a coordinated expenditure:
The expenditure is based on information about the candidate’s campaign’s plans, projects, or needs communicated to the person making the expenditure, or that person’s agent, by the candidate’s campaign, provided that the person uses the information, in whole or in part, either directly or indirectly, to design, prepare, or pay for the specific expenditure at issue.
This is the provision that will allow the ethics board to look not only into rabbit holes, but also into rat nests and badger burrows.

Especially in larger cities, independent expenditures, and the possibility of independent expenditures, is undermining all approaches to keeping campaigns from being so expensive, and so dependent on a few who seek special benefits from the local government, that officials are seen as selling themselves to the highest bidders. Unless, of course, they're independently wealthy.

Even in a small city like New Haven (where I used to administer a public campaign financing program for the mayoral election), the mayor can say that he will not participate in the program because he could be destroyed by independent expenditures. Such expenditures have not been crucial to a mayoral election so far, but they could be.

At the national level, "independent" committees have made a mockery of the idea of uncoordinated expenditures. No one believes they're uncoordinated. And the public's belief is what is most important in government ethics.

Philadelphia's ethics board has taken a very good stab at dealing with this problem. It's not a complete solution, but perhaps the prospect of a board willing to look into some rabbit holes, rat nests, and badger burrows will prevent some of the worst abuses of what people say are uncoordinated expenditures.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics