Saturday, February 05, 2011

Show me the money

If you have been hiding under a rock or stuck in an ice cave the past several days, you might have missed the latest in the ever lengthening line of scandals to hit the Tony Mack administration.

In a nutshell, the city awarded a contract for general legal counsel to the law firm of Cooper Levenson last October. The head guy at Cooper Levenson, Lloyd Levenson, was on Mayor Mack’s transition team and he headed up the committee that put together the Mayor’s Inaugural Ball.

The Mayor wanted Cooper Levenson to get the city contract so badly that he sent it before council three times before he could muster the four votes needed to carry out his desire. At the time, many raised the issue that Mr. Levenson, whose name was prominently featured on the invitation to the Mayor’s gala, was soliciting on behalf of the Mayor and therefore his firm was not eligible to be awarded the contract.

Mr. Levenson, of course, denied that he ever contributed to or solicited contributions on behalf of Mayor Mack. Four members of Trenton’s city council: Alex Bethea, Phyllis Holly-Ward, Kathy McBride, and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson voted to approve the contract.

On January 31, the Times published a story detailing a $7,200 contribution made to a local Political Action Committee (PAC), Partners For Progress (PFP). PFP in turn made an equal contribution to Mayor Mack’s campaign.

A spokesman for Cooper Levenson claims that the firm sent a letter requesting the return of the contribution so they could proceed with soliciting business from the city. The spokesman claims the contribution was repaid and so the potential violation of the city’s Pay to Play ordinance was averted.

If that is the case…show us the cancelled check proving that the contribution was indeed refunded, when it was refunded and that it was re-deposited into the law firm’s account.

Until that check is produced no one should have to take Mr. Levenson’s or anyone else’s word that the violation was “cured,” as the lawyers say.

As for PFP, their tardy reporting to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) just may be central to what is looking to be a very interesting story.

Partners For Progress was formed, in early 2010 by Cynthia Taylor, Carla Hogan and Pete Fields: two Trenton residents (Fields and Hogan) and the owner of a Trenton business (Taylor owns Jet Wine and Liquor on Willow Street). At the bottom of a press release distributed about 3:00 pm on Wednesday, February 2, 2011 PFP states the following:

Partners for Progress PAC — Partners for Progress PAC is an independent, non-partisan group of individuals dedicated to supporting candidates, organizations or causes who demonstrate a commitment to advancing the interests of their community socially and economically. Through political participation and organizational support,

Partners for Progress PAC plans to endorse candidates or causes who have shown an interest in shaping good government policies that will advance the issues important to our organization.

Partners for Progress PAC’s mission is to not only raise money – but also to raise awareness about the political process, educating potential candidates, candidates, and organizations on how to successfully participate in the political process.
Well, maybe Ms. Taylor, Ms. Hogan and Mr. Fields should have raised their own awareness and educated themselves on how to correctly participate in the political process.

PFP is required by law to file quarterly reports detailing their fundraising and expenditures. Since they “organized” in February of last 2010, their first report covering inception through March 31, 2010 was filed when due on April 15, 2010. No additional reports were filed until January of this year when the one covering the period ending June 30 and due on July15 was given to ELEC.

The reports due October 15 and January 15 for the 3rd and 4th calendar quarters have yet to be filed (or at least aren’t yet posted to the ELEC website).

{Note: As far as that goes, many of our candidates/elected officials are behind in their report filing as well. But we’ll get to that some other time.}

Besides the late and missing filings, there are some other issues with PFP’s reporting.

In December, Politicker NJ reported that ELEC was investigating the unreported and excessive contribution made to Tony Mack’s campaign by PFP.
By law, a PAC like PFP can only contribute up to $8,200.00 to a candidate committee in an election. The Mack campaign reported receiving a contribution of $8,805 from PFP…$605 over the limit. PFP hadn’t filed the required reports so there was no record of the contributions from that side…a violation of the state’s campaign finance laws.

Interestingly, the Mack campaign also reported a reimbursement back to PFP of $3,173. But it only had to return the $605 excess. Hmmm.

Why then, did Mack return an additional $2,568 to PFP? There’s no details on the Mack report…could it have been a “partial” repayment of the infamous $7,200 from Cooper Levenson?

Let’s say it was returned to PFP so PFP could in turn repay Cooper Levenson. Where is the documentation?

PFP’s sole report, filed months late and only after the story appeared on Politicker NJ has an entry showing the return of the $3,173 from the Mack campaign but it doesn’t show any reimbursement…in part or in whole…to Cooper Levenson.

Did the reimbursement come in the next reporting period (July 1 – September 30)?

We don’t know because there is no evidence of PFP report having been filed for that or any subsequent period.

In the Times article on this mess published February 3, reporter Alex Zdan wrote the following:

According to Mack, the city received Cooper Levenson’s refund letter when it was sent to Partners For Progress June 28, three days before Mack became mayor. A copy of the letter could not be provided to The Times last night.

“The problem is, it’s in a locked office and I don’t have the key,” mayoral spokeswoman Lauren Ira said.

McKithen could not be reached for comment last night.

Partners For Progress’ Cynthia Taylor denied the $7,200 was specifically for Mack.

“We didn’t approach him, he came to us, he didn’t say, ‘This is for Tony, or anything like that,’” Taylor said yesterday.

Although Levenson said the firm received a full return of their contribution, Taylor said she was not sure.

“Well, like I said, I don’t know what’s going on, what happened since then,” she said. “I just know they asked for the money back sometime in June.”
So was the money returned or wasn’t it?

Levenson claims there was a full return of the contribution, but Ms. Taylor doesn’t know. And, according to the paperwork filed with ELEC, Ms. Taylor signs the checks for PFP.

A reading of the city of Trenton’s Pay to Play ordinance makes it pretty clear that the contribution has to be returned in full before the violation is corrected.

Let’s look at another aspect of the PFP report. The first sheet of the 30 page document gives a summary accounting of the PAC’s funds. It shows an entry of cash on hand of $2,248.71.

If PFP hadn’t returned the $7200 contribution to Cooper Levenson by the June 30th close of the reporting period as indicated by the report, then the refund must have occurred later (if at all).

Since no subsequent reports have yet to be filed, we can’t determine if a later payment was actually made. But with a balance of $2,248.71 shown on the report, PFP would have to find another $4,951.29 somewhere to make up the difference and be able to return the contribution to Cooper Levenson.

Again, no subsequent reports have been filed, so PFP can’t show that they took in the money.

Doesn’t seem likely that they returned Cooper Levenson’s contribution, does it?

There are other interesting aspects of the PFP report filed on January 27, 2011. We’ll get to those in the next installment.

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