Ohio Elections Commission Finds Council Leadership Fund Guilty of Campaign Finance Violation

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Councilmen Kevin Conwell, Kevin Kelley and Tony Brancatelli mugging in front of an anti-Kelley truck outside City Hall in 2016. - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Councilmen Kevin Conwell, Kevin Kelley and Tony Brancatelli mugging in front of an anti-Kelley truck outside City Hall in 2016.

The Ohio Elections Commission, at its meeting Thursday, ruled that the Council Leadership Fund, a political action committee controlled by the Cleveland City Council President, was guilty of campaign finance violations for improper expenditures in the Ward 12 council race.

Challenger Rebecca Maurer ultimately won the race, unseating incumbent Tony Brancatelli in a ward that includes Slavic Village on the east side and portions of Old Brooklyn, Brooklyn Centre and Tremont on the west. She filed the OEC complaint in September against the Council Leadership Fund, Brancatelli and Brancatelli's campaign PAC, arguing that the Fund had made monetary and in-kind contributions that totaled far more than the maximum permitted by city charter and Ohio law.



The Council Leadership Fund had written Brancatelli's campaign a $3,000 check this summer. Since 2016, that has been the max that PACs may donate in city council races. But the Fund subsequently paid for three pro-Brancatelli mailers in Ward 12. These were in-kind contributions worth thousands of dollars that Maurer argued tipped the scales even more dramatically in favor of the incumbent. Council races are typically low-budget affairs, and signs and mailers are some of the most costly expenditures candidates make.

(Though Maurer was the only challenger to file an OEC complaint for the Council Leadership Fund's activities, Scene reported that the fund flouted campaign contribution limits in multiple Cleveland wards, supporting candidates who aligned with Kevin Kelley and endorsed him in the mayor's race.) 



At its meeting in Columbus, the OEC dismissed both Brancatelli and his PAC from the complaint, but found that the Council Leadership Fund had indeed violated the rules.

As punishment, the mighty Fund will be fined $50.

Fifty dollars.

When Scene spoke to an OEC staffer by phone Thursday evening, we asked whether the $50 fine was standard. It sure seemed low to us. In fact, it seemed almost meaningless, if the goal was supposed to be deterrence. 

"It varies case by case," the staffer said. 

Well gosh. This outcome certainly illustrates the futility of enforcing campaign finance laws in Ohio. Lest there's any confusion, incumbents violate campaign finance limits and other laws related to campaign spending every year. In the overwhelming majority of cases, no one notices or cares. In rare cases, the violations are flagrant enough to earn a few local headlines. Basheer Jones probably violated a dozen or more earlier this year, and nothing came of it.  Big donors like Tony George contribute more than they're allowed to every election cycle and can always pretend, if they're confronted, that excess contributions were actually made by additional family members. Just edit the filing. Wife. Son. Whoever. Take your pick.

In even rarer cases, a challenger documents the flagrant violations and appeals to the state's regulatory body, an appointed non-partisan commission, hoping for some accountability.

Alas.
 
The OEC is perhaps the least fearsome adjudicating board on planet earth. Its function is to make explicit how seriously the state of Ohio takes campaign finance laws: i.e. not seriously at all. Fifty freaking dollars! That's literally cheaper than a single ticket to the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit during peak hours.

With slaps on the wrist this meek, Ohio officials can't afford not to be corrupt. 

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