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Philadelphia’s Era of Dark Money Politics Has Begun

The city’s Board of Ethics alleges that mayoral candidate Jeff Brown illegally coordinated donation solicitations. But about half of the cash behind Brown’s campaign comes from a political action committee whose backers are undisclosed.

Philly mayoral candidate Jeff Brown
Grocer-turned-mayoral candidate Jeff Brown is benefiting from millions in spending by "dark money" political groups.
(Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
(TNS) — The "dark money" era of Philadelphia politics has officially begun.

An outside spending group that has raised millions to boost mayoral candidate Jeff Brown is the first political organization to play a significant role in a Philly mayor's race with most of its money coming from undisclosed donors.

With more money behind him than all but one of his rivals in this year's crowded Democratic primary field, Brown has become a top contender. About half of that cash came from a political action committee whose backers are almost entirely unknown to the public.

In a major escalation in the controversies over the money behind Brown’s candidacy, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics on Monday sued For a Better Philadelphia, alleging that Brown illegally coordinated with the group by soliciting donations for it and seeking what would be a record $162,000 in fines. The board, however, is not contesting the group’s right to keep donors secret so long as it follows other campaign finance laws.

Anonymous funding is already commonplace in campaigns for federal office, but its introduction into a Philadelphia mayor's race raises new ethical quandaries for city government — especially if a candidate with "dark money" backing becomes mayor. And some fear that the success of the group backing Brown will lead to anonymous money becoming a regular part of Philly politics.

"If someone were to win public office with the help of a dark money super PAC, the voters will never know where the big checks came from, but their elected official will," said Patrick Christmas, policy director of the good government group Committee of Seventy. "It's disturbing to see this amount of campaign money hidden from the public and seemingly spent early to avoid the current disclosure rules."

Christmas said dark money would make it impossible to determine whether the mayor were using his or her office to benefit a political backer, which would be a conflict of interest, if the public didn't know who helped get the person elected.

Brown, a ShopRite proprietor who has opened stores in underserved neighborhoods, is running as a City Hall outsider and compassionate businessman. He said that record should assure voters that he will stay true to his principles regardless of who backs his campaign.

"I've been accountable to the people of Philadelphia for my entire career — in everything I've done," Brown said in a statement. "Unlike some, it didn't start when I decided to run for office. The idea that I would change is a lie."

For a Better Philadelphia, the group supporting Brown, is a "super PAC," which is a political action committee that can raise unlimited amounts of money but is prohibited from coordinating with candidates.

Super PACs for the first time played a major role in Philadelphia during the 2015 mayor's race, when Jim Kenney defeated State Sen. Tony Williams (D., Phila.). Kenney was backed by super PACs that got money from labor unions, and Williams benefited from a group funded by a trio of Main Line billionaires who supported his efforts to promote school choice.

There are several other super PACs in this year's race, with groups also lining up to support candidates Cherelle Parker, Rebecca Rhynhart, and Helen Gym. But all of those groups have so far disclosed their backers.

Only Brown's For a Better Philadelphia is keeping its donors secret by funneling 96 percent of its money through three nonprofits — and it's allowed to do so thanks to a loophole in campaign finance law.

Dan Siegel, a consultant for the PAC, confirmed that the group does not plan to reveal who is funding the nonprofits behind it.

"For a Better Philadelphia has and intends to continue complying with all government regulations concerning the use of [nonprofit] money," he said.

Asked whether the PAC would go beyond the requirements and disclose its backers, Siegel said no.

The largest chunk of dark money came from a nonprofit that is also named For a Better Philadelphia and has given the PAC about $2.5 million. David Maser, a lawyer who helped form the nonprofit, did not respond to requests for comment.

Neither did Craig Varoga, who works with the two other nonprofits, preexisting groups based in Washington called Patriot Majority USA and Maps USA. They have given the PAC $500,000.

Philly's campaign finance rules would have required those groups to file a report revealing their donors if those contributions were made within 50 days of the May 16 primary. But because the deposits came in last year, well in advance of that threshold, there is no law requiring the nonprofits to provide transparency about their backers.

While the pro-Brown super PAC is the first dark money group to make a play in a mayor's race, Philly has had another notable dalliance with anonymous political funding. Philadelphia 3.0, a super PAC that focuses on Council races, made waves in the 2015 and 2019 elections for backing challengers to entrenched incumbents in part by using money that was passed through a nonprofit with the same name.

Council strengthened the disclosure rules in response to Philadelphia 3.0′s activities, and the group revealed some of its donors during the 2019 cycle. But last year, it took in more than $317,000 from its related nonprofit and can spend that on this year's Council races without revealing donors.

The city's election laws are interpreted and enforced by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics. The board is currently investigating campaign finance activities related to Brown, The Inquirer reported last month, but it is so far unclear what the board is focusing on.

Separate from the super PAC and his campaign, Brown started another political group, Philly Progress PAC, that spent $1.2 million on staff and consultants over two years before Brown became a candidate, including hundreds of thousands that went to people who later joined his campaign staff.

Brown's opponents in the mayor's race are attacking him for benefiting from anonymous donors. A spokesperson for former City Councilmember Allan Domb, a real estate magnate who has given his own mayoral campaign a staggering $7 million of his own money, said the pro-Brown super PAC "has made an unprecedented attempt to bring the worst of DC dark money politics to Philadelphia."

"Jeff Brown owes it to the people of Philadelphia to disclose his secret donors, what promises he made to them behind closed doors, and why his campaign is under ethics investigation," Domb spokesperson Jared Leopold said in a statement.

Brown shot back, saying it "reeks of hypocrisy that I would be criticized by a man who is trying to buy an election" and criticizing Domb's ads showing him driving through potholes and promising to fix them.

"When he had the opportunity to address potholes in the City Council, he did nothing about them," Brown said of Domb. "Just like he would do nothing for the city if he were elected mayor."

For a Better Philadelphia has raised $3.1 million in total, including some contributions from donors who are not hiding their identities. It had $256,000 in the bank as of two weeks ago, according to its last campaign finance report.

But it appears to be nearing the end of its efforts to influence voters in the mayor's race. The PAC has stopped reserving airtime for TV ads after spending big early in the race to boost voters' awareness of Brown.

"We executed a strategy with the intent of leveling the playing field for an outsider, first-time candidate," Siegel said. "We are glad to see a race where an outsider has a chance to bring change to the city of Philadelphia."

Dark money has been rampant in federal elections ever since the U.S. Supreme Court unleashed the floodgates of political spending for corporations and super-wealthy individuals through such decisions as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010.

The introduction of dark money into a Philadelphia mayor's race by Brown's PAC may mean that Philly politics will now follow a similar path, said former Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez, who dropped out of the mayor's race on Sunday because she could not keep up with the pace of fundraising by Brown, Domb and other candidates.

"After this election, particularly if Jeff gets away with the way he's structured this, anybody can buy themselves a Council, anybody can buy themselves a mayor," Quiñones Sánchez said.

(c)2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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