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If a Candidate Can't Follow Campaign Finance Law, Shouldn't That Tell You Something?

The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) last week filed a complaint against Hoboken Council Member Beth Mason, alleging several violations of the state’s campaign laws dating back to her 2011 election campaign. That complaint, and the nature of the charges, should be of concern to current Trenton Mayoral candidate Eric Jackson and his campaign.

It’s also a matter that should be of concern to Trenton voters who are being asked to vote for Mr. Jackson based on a presentation of the candidate as being the most professional, the most ethical, honest and transparent of the eight candidates running. The conduct of his election efforts in both 2010 and this year – at least in regard to their observance of state campaign finance laws, suggests far less than conscientious compliance.

The State ELEC filed a complaint against Ms. Mason and her husband (who was her 2011 campaign treasurer), charging the council member with six counts of late and incomplete reporting, all in connection with her 2011 council campaign. According to the Hudson Reporter, In all, ELEC alleged that Mason’s campaign failed to report a total of $126,199 on time, with the information submitted anywhere between 98 and 276 days late. The amounts should have been reported on reports that were due beginning in October 2011 and April 2012, but were not revealed first until July 2012.”

According to the account in PolitickerNJ.com, the Councilwoman and her treasurer husband have the option of contesting the charges at a hearing, or they can accept the the determination of the Commission and likely end up paying fines. Although not spelled out in either of these articles, the amounts of such fines can easily total thousands of dollars. Last year, for instance, the political action committee for Union City Mayor and State Senator Brian Stack was fined $68,725 by ELEC for late campaign filings dating from 2003 to 2005.

That’s some serious money, for serious campaign finance violations.

So, what’s the connection with Eric Jackson?

Jackson’s current 2014 campaign has been in the news over the last few weeks for a few campaign-finance related irregularities. One involves an alleged violation of Trenton’s Pay-to-Play Ordinance by a current contractor with the City of Trenton. The second concerns the failure to properl;y account for and disclose the identities of the donors of nearly $2000 in cash donations given to the Jackson campaign in December of 2013. These two instances cover only the ongoing 2014 mayoral effort by Mr. Jackson.

Where Eric Jackson shares some exposure to charges by ELEC, similar to Beth Mason in Hoboken, is from his prior mayoral campaign, in 2010.  Beth Mason is facing charges from filing several of her reports very late . Eric Jackson’s prior campaign failed to even file many of his required reports.

In connection with his 2010 campaign, Mr. Jackson filed 4 reports with ELEC. As required, he submitted both a “29-Day Pre-Election report” and an “11-Day Pre-Election report” prior to the May 11, 2010 election, which detailed all of his donations and expenses up to the point at which the reports were submitted. As of his latest report, the “11-Day Pre-Election report” filed on 4/30/2010, Mr. Jackson had raised a total of $45,371 for his campaign, and had spent only $16,517.

And there the story ends. No further reports were ever filed by Mr. Jackson for his 2010 campaign.

He failed to file a required “20-Day Post-Election report” itemizing all of the income and expenses from his campaign as he incurred them before and after Election Day.

He failed to file Quarterly Financial Reports for the periods ending March 30 and June 30, 2010.

He failed to file any “48-hour” notices of expenses or donations in amounts exceeding $1400, as he would have been required to. Now it is possible that his campaign may not have had any donations or expenses that exceeded those amounts; but given how busy his campaign got toward Election Day, and immediately after when he contested his very tight 3rd-place finish alongside Manuel Segura, that is somewhat unlikely.

And, perhaps most importantly, Mr. Jackson failed to file any reports to formally close out his campaign committee after it had ended the 2010 campaign.

By law, any unspent balance in his campaign accounts would have either had to have been transferred to his 2014 campaign, or returned to donors. If he never formally closed his 2010 account, he would have been liable to file financial status reports at the end of every quarter from 2010 up until now.

Mr. Jackson’ s campaign filed no reports from April 30, 2010 until July 15, 2013, over three years later. That July report, which can be viewed here, is the first for his 2014 campaign, and begins all balances for his new campaign from zero.

According to his last report filed, Mr. Jackson had a balance of $23,770.94 in his account. He has never filed a report, as required by law, to disclose what he did with that money after the 2010 election was over. As far as NJ ELEC and state campaign finance law is concerned, the fate of that $23,770.94 – plus any additional 2010 campaign donations and expenses since April 30, 2010 – is unknown and way overdue to be reported.

Back to Beth Mason. According to the article in PolitickerNJ, she has been formally charged with violations and is now subject to fines for reports that were late by 276 days, 276 days, 184 days, 184 days, 98 days and 98 days.

How late are Mr. Jackson’s reports? One of them, the report for expenses through and including the quarter ending June 30 was due on July 15, 2010. That was 1,334 days ago. Many of his other reports are even more overdue.

Will Mr. Jackson be held liable by ELEC for any of this? I don’t know. But given the examples cited above, Councilwoman Mason and Senator/Mayor Stack, he certainly is vulnerable.  And his campaign could be exposed to pay significant penalties and fines, should he be charged.

To me, though, these disclosures are relevant and important for several other reasons.

In reaction to press reports about the pay-to-play violation and the mis-reported cash donations, both the Jackson campaign and the candidate himself have seemed pretty dismissive of the problems.  As quoted by the Trenton Times, Jackson attorney David Minchello denied any violation of ELEC law. “There definitely hasn’t been any violation of the ELEC law,” he said, ”but we will make sure that the cash contributions are reported with names as required by law.”

Mr. Minchello’s denial of an ELEC violation is kind of  undercut by what he said after “but:”  We didn’t violate the law, but we will make sure we will follow it in the future! Hmmm.

Mr. Jackson himself sounded rather dismissive of the problems in his current campaign reporting. According to the Trenton Times, “Although he has to sign the reports before they are submitted, Jackson said he is not solely responsible for any inconsistencies. ‘I don’t see every check that is coming in,’ he said.”

He sounds somewhat less of the hands-on, dedicated professional manager who is the best qualified to bring ethics back to Trenton that his campaign is making him out to be, doesn’t he?

Mr. Minchello and Mr. Jackson could possibly afford to take this kind of position, as long as the conversation was just about one or two minor violations and discrepancies in his current campaign, isolated instances in an otherwise well-run campaign.

But, when viewed in the context of several omissions, oversights and violations conducted by not one but two of his mayoral campaigns four years apart, these isolated instances begin to look more like a pattern of repeated behavior, doesn’t it?

Eric Jackson failed to properly report on, disclose and close out his 2010 mayoral campaign. He has already admitted to violations in campaign record-keeping and reporting in his current one. He admits as well to a certain distance from day to day operations – “I don’t see every check that is coming in” – in a campaign for which he is ultimately responsible.

Does this suggest to you that, as far as observing campaign finance law is concerned, Eric Jackson may be a little less than dedicated? Does he and his campaign believe that there will likely be little chance of being held accountable by ELEC, or the voters, for his campaign reporting lapses?

Perhaps Hoboken’s Councilwoman Beth Mason felt the same. As of last week’s charges against her, I’m sure she feels differently now.

Should all this concern Trenton’s voters? I think it definitely should. Eric Jackson’s unfinished business from his 2010 campaign should certainly be relevant to voters in 2014 as they consider who to elect Mayor to repair Trenton after the past four disastrous years.

Last summer, I wrote a piece that discussed the continuing problems with timely ELEC compliance that several sitting Trenton City Council members were having. What I felt then, I still feel now, and I will finish today with a reprise from that piece.

[A] candidate’s – or office holder’s – record of compliance with the commonly-known and pretty easily-followed ELEC Rules of The Game is a pretty good way to predict how conscientious that person will be to following the rules in office… If [candidates] can’t handle their own campaign finances properly, can we expect them to do so for Trenton’s?




3 comments to If a Candidate Can’t Follow Campaign Finance Law, Shouldn’t That Tell You Something?

  • Mark Stradling

    I am very interested in seeing what happens with the $2,000 in unidentified donations.
    If names end up being associated with those donations, I see only two possible conclusions:
    1. They knew, and didn’t care enough to report properly.
    2. They’re making it up after the fact.

  • Kevin

    Thanks for the note, Mark.

    Based on what I see from the incomplete 2010 reports as I discussed, I certainly think that your number 1. applies, at least.

  • Michael Smith

    Interesting,very interesting.
    Campaign reports over 3 years late. Whats ELEC doing? Twiddling their thumbs?
    A person could not ignore a traffic ticket that long and get away with it.