Digging into public financing: From clerical errors to cash for constituents

Advocates of the state’s Citizens’ Election Fund say that the program succeeded in 2008 – keeping special interest money out of political campaigns by pumping public money in.

How much money?  Typical Senate candidates in contested races could have gotten as much as $85,000 for the general election. House candidates in the same situation could have gotten up to $25,000. That adds up to about $8 million public dollars spent on things like advertising, lawn signs, buttons, and office supplies.

Now, as legislators work to save the program after a federal court ruled it unconstitutional, state officials are looking back – auditing over 340 campaigns from 2008 to make sure that public money wasn’t misspent.

Most of the audits are turning up minor clerical errors, but a few, apparently, are raising more serious issues.

Even the program’s backers say the audit process can be onerous, including state Rep. James Spallone, D-Essex, co-chairman of the legislative committee working to fix the law to comply with the federal court’s ruling.

“Some candidates have been frustrated with the audit process because they feel that they’re being required to sweat the small stuff,” Spallone said.

Take his own campaign filing, for example: His audit shows 57 errors in his campaign finance filings — things like not fully reporting reimbursements.

“You don’t find big problems unless you find the small ones,” Spallone said. “Almost 100 percent of the time a clerical error or something like that means very little. But sometimes it leads to a trail of finding either a larger error or misuse.”

Of the roughly 140 campaign audits reviewed so far by the State Elections Enforcement Commission, only four are getting a closer look.

The campaign of former Hartford state Rep. Abraham Giles is one of them.

Giles, a longtime fixture in Hartford politics who served in the General Assembly in the 1970s and 80s, ran for office again and lost in 2008.  But his campaign got $25,000 in the process.  He also got the state’s strict oversight on the public’s behalf – something Giles, and some legislators, say is nitpicking.

“They come up with some things I can’t even understand… It seems like there’s a problem with the people that passed the literature and that did other work that only received a little bit of money at the time,” Giles said. “I guess we didn’t get them to fill out something and I didn’t know that it needed to be done.”

Because his matter is still under investigation, state elections officials won’t say what their initial audit of Giles’ campaign revealed. But WNPR’s review of his campaign finance filings show that Giles was generous to constituents and associates.

Giles ran and lost in the 2008 Democratic primary against state Rep. Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey in one of the poorest districts in one of the state’s poorest cities.

Foes have described Giles as a bad legislator who was nevertheless a hardworking, grassroots, fix-your-street-light kind of politician.  And he’s a man who thrives at the intersection of small business and taxpayer-supported entities-from running city parking lots to evicting housing authority tenants to moving and storing their unwanted to property.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that Giles sees politics as a way to help his constituents make money, too.  Take, for instance, the roughly $6,000 in small payments made to poll workers around the primary — the kind of standard-fare political money in poor communities that Kirkley-Bey paid, too.

“They live from day to day, they have to have something to get some food from day to day,” Giles said. “Even if they had more money and bought a lot of food their kids would go through it in two or three days and they wouldn’t have nothing for the rest of the week or the rest of the month.”

He also spent money on advertising, food, postage, lawn signs, and other incidental costs.  That totaled nearly $8,000.

The second half of Giles’ money went to people he knew.

Records show he paid his grandson $1,000 for campaign buttons.  It’s unclear from the records if that payment was for a reimbursement. And he paid $1,000 to an old acquaintance in town from Atlanta to work as a singing bus driver and a campaign aide.

“He got overpaid. He got somebody else’s check and took off,” Giles said. “I didn’t even try to get it back. He was going back to Atlanta, or wherever.”

Giles also paid his own company $800 for rent for his campaign headquarters. He paid Working Families Party Board of Education member Sharon Patterson-Stallings at least $2,000 for canvassing.

And Democratic veteran Prenzina Holloway got $2,000 for grassroots political work. Giles said he wasn’t exactly thrilled with what he got.

“She certainly was not as good a canvasser as we thought, no. She was supposed to have a group of people,” Giles said.. “She brought one person over that was a leader of group, but the group never showed up. At all. I was completely unhappy.”

Holloway’s daughter also got paid by the campaign. rJo Winch is the Democratic Majority Leader of the  Hartford City Council.  She has a business called Property Management Plus.  Giles paid that business $2,100 for printing.

“She had a printing business. Incidentally, I thought it was more elaborate than it was.”

Walter Kawecki helped manage Giles’ campaign. He said the decisions to hire Holloway and Winch were based as much on their political connections as on their ability to deliver services.

“Prenzina can be very helpful on campaigns. She knows a lot of people, as well as her daughter does,” Kawecki said. “And having her on your side is better than not having her on your side.”

Kirkley-Bey’s assessment of Giles’ actions are blunter, and harsher.

“I believe that Abe got in the primary just because of campaign finance reform,” she said. “And his whole thing was, how much of this money could I pocket?”

Giles says Kirkley-Bey has it all wrong: He was going to get in the race before he knew there was public money.  And, he said, his whole purpose in running was about serving the city’s residents.

“As a matter of fact, I’m not a taker, I’m a giver,” Giles said. He said he has always tried to hire people from the community to work on his campaigns. “And that’s the only reason. It wasn’t no kind of quid pro quo or anything like that.”


This story is based on a two-part report by Jeff Cohen, Capitol Region Reporter for WNPR, Connecticut Public Radio. The first part aired Wednesday; the second second part may be heard today beginning at 7:33 a.m. on “Morning Edition” on WNPR.