Mayor John DeStefano Jr. may have violated campaign finance rules by donating leftover funds from his 2007 campaign, a government board said.
At issue is a $12,500 contribution the campaign made in 2008 to the James Hillhouse Society, a political action committee that supports progressive candidates. The donation may have violated the ordinance establishing the New Haven Democracy Fund, a government program that offers public funding to mayoral candidates, including DeStefano. The group realized the potential conflict this fall.
Public money provided by the Fund is not supposed to benefit political action committees, said Caleb Kleppner, chair of the Democracy Fund board. But it is unclear, he added, whether candidates who receive some public money can donate other campaign funds to political action committees.
The donation raises questions about what happens to funds that remain after a campaign ends, Democracy Fund administrator Robert Wechsler said.
Kleppner said that if DeStefano’s campaign violated the ordinance, it could be reprimanded or fined. A fine would be either $2,000 or twice the amount of the improper expenditures, whichever is greater, Wechsler said. The Democracy Fund will discuss the issue on Monday.
Adriana Arreola, current treasurer of the James Hillhouse Society and DeStefano’s 2007 campaign manager, said the donation did not violate any rules of the Democracy Fund since the public money the mayor had received from the Democracy Fund had already been spent.
“There are a bunch of different issues surrounding [the donation] that make it more of a grey area,” Wechsler said.
Wechsler and the Democracy Fund initially found out about the donation from a September article in the New Haven Independent about the society that mentioned the donation. Currently, DeStefano’s Chief of Staff Sean Matteson chairs the society, which provides money to aldermanic candidates “who support City Hall,” the article said. Before the 2009 aldermanic primaries, the James Hillhouse Society donated $375 both to Ward 14 candidate Stephanie Bauer and Ward 30 candidate Carlton Staggers. Bauer won her primary and the general election. Staggers lost.
“I thought that didn’t sound kosher,” Wechsler said of the campaign’s donation to the society.
According to the Democracy Fund’s governing rules, candidates participating in the fund cannot use public funds to “support or oppose” a political committee. Public funds from the Democracy Fund can only be used for what the fund defines as “qualified campaign expenditures,” such as actual costs incurred during the running of the campaign, according to the Democracy Fund’s governing ordinance.
Arreola said the Democracy Fund considers the first money a campaign spends as the public money. For that reason, she said, DeStefano’s campaign did not violate the rules because it had already spent the funds it had received from the Democracy Fund by the time it made the donation to the James Hillhouse Society.
Wechlser said it is not clear what the Democracy Fund Board will decide Monday. He said although the board could decide that the donation was not a violation, members could also decide to launch an investigation. Kleppner said he is “up in the air” as to whether or not the donation was a violation because the ordinance’s wording is not clear.
“It’s clear that you can’t do that with public funds,” he said. “It’s not clear to me whether or not its permissible with the funds that aren’t public funds.”
Arreola said a representative of the mayor’s campaign will attend the Democracy Fund’s board meeting Monday.
DeStefano was the only mayor candidate to receive money from the Democracy Fund in his 2009 campaign.