A local PAC controlled by Kevin Kelley may have violated campaign finance laws, according to a complaint filed with the Ohio Elections Commission by Cleveland City Council candidate Rebecca Maurer, who alleged in the complaint that the PAC surpassed campaign contribution limits to her opponent, Tony Brancatelli, who she trailed only 78 votes behind in Ward 12’s primary.
“These are not sort of iffy issues of campaign finance violation, but in fact very clear,” Maurer said in an interview. “In a race where a few mailers is a big chunk of the funds we have on hand, it is disappointing that the Council Leadership Fund PAC [political action committee] is jeopardizing its legitimacy and sort of jeopardizing what I think has widely been seen across Ward 12 as a really substantive, fruitful race so far by violating Ohio election law.”
The Council Leadership Fund PAC, which Kelley serves as deputy treasurer on, is exactly what it sounds like: a pool of funds controlled by the city council president for the purpose of benefiting those aligned with council leadership. The PAC contributed a maximum donation of $3,000 to Brancatelli’s campaign. Then, the PAC sent out three mailers supporting Brancatelli, who has occupied Ward 12’s council seat since 2005.
While PACs are permitted under law to make “independent expenditures” supporting or opposing candidates, Maurer alleged that the mailers in question — some of which are written in first person as if from Brancatelli and feature his own signature block, logo and campaign contact information — reflect cooperation between the PAC and Brancatelli’s campaign. If they were created in cooperation, the expense of these in-kind donations would exceed campaign contribution limits for city council candidates laid out in Cleveland’s charter.
“The rules about limits are established to root out quid-pro-quo,” said Catherine Turcer, the executive director of Common Cause Ohio. “Political action committees are permitted to do mailers that are independent, but there’s certainly enough evidence here that the election commission should look at this very seriously because it appears to be coordinated with the candidate.”
Additionally, Maurer said in her complaint that she has seen Brancatelli and his campaigners handling and/or distributing the PAC-financed mailers to voters on three separate occasions. Because of this, she said in her complaint that both Brancatelli’s campaign and the PAC had violated several campaign finance laws.
“I worry that, if the Council Leadership Fund PAC is just going to, you know, barnburn their way to the general election, it will get uglier,” Maurer said in an interview. “On the other hand, I know that raising campaign finance issues will make some people think that I’m the one making it ugly. That’s frustrating to me because all I really want is a fair race.”
The first mailer Maurer’s complaint brought up included a letter from Brancatelli, which included his email address, phone number and campaign logo, signed in his signature block. By including those items, Maurer alleged that this mailer crossed the line of independent expenditure defined in the ORC as an expenditure “that is not made with the consent of, in coordination, cooperation or consultation with, or at the request or suggestion” of a candidate or their campaign.
It’s not unheard of for PACs to send out mailers purporting to be candidates, Turcer said, but it’s unusual that Brancatelli didn’t stand up to clarify that these mailers weren’t his own doing. While all the mailers do include disclaimers that they were paid for by the Council Leadership Fund PAC, they do not state that they were created without Brancatelli’s permission, which is mandated in the ORC.
“If you were a candidate, and some PAC put out an ad, a mailer or whatever, and it included your phone number and your logo, and you did not coordinate, you would be raising holy hell,” Turcer said. “It’s wildly inappropriate unless you’re connected.”
Maurer said she tried to call Kelley and Brancatelli to resolve the issue quietly. When The Land reached out to Brancatelli, he wrote in an email, “I do not control the [Council Leadership Fund PAC] or any other PAC. They make their own decisions, please reach out to them.”
Kelley, who is city council president and also running for mayor, didn’t respond to The Land’s request for comment, but his campaign spokesperson previously sent Cleveland Scene the following statement:
“Rebecca Maurer’s campaign raised this issue just before the primary election and the PAC responded to it then. Not surprisingly, she’s raising it again before the general election. Our response is the same. The standard is that PACs can make contributions to candidates and that they can undertake independent expenditures. Now, it’s up to the Commission to decide if they will review this issue.”
The OEC received Maurer’s complaint early this week, but decided to reject it on a technicality on Wednesday, said OEC Executive Director Phil Richter. The complaint referenced a statute in the Ohio Revised Code, 3517.21(B), that Ohio’s 6th Circuit Court of Appeals deemed unconstitutional years ago. Ohio’s Attorney General made a rule that his office doesn’t hear complaints referencing this statute, so the OEC has decided to reject them as well.
In a press release, Maurer said her campaign planned to revise the complaint and refile it Wednesday, but even then, the complaint likely won’t be officially heard by the Commission before the general election, Richter said. The Commission meets monthly, and it would likely schedule this complaint for its Nov. 18 meeting.
“The concern is that, unless we call it out, and unless we make clear that we’re not OK with the Council Leadership Fund mucking around in Ward 12, it’ll only become worse,” Maurer said.
Michael Indriolo is a reporting fellow at The Land.
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