A flier sent out by For A Better Philadelphia and received by a voter last week. (Courtesy Billy Penn reader)

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A Philly judge’s decision today does little to resolve accusations that mayoral candidate Jeff Brown engaged in illegal fundraising activity, and won’t stop a super PAC that supports Brown from sending out election materials, either.

Judge Joshua Roberts approved an agreement between the PAC, For A Better Philadelphia, and the city’s Board of Ethics, which went to court earlier this month to force the group to suspend its activities.

Roberts ordered the PAC to stop spending money two weeks ago, and today’s agreement maintains that freeze on election expenditures through the November general election. The ethics board has accused the political action committee of illegally coordinating fundraising with Brown.

But the agreement doesn’t address whether Brown and the PAC broke the law, or if his campaign will have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for receiving excess contributions from the committee.

It also will not halt the PAC’s distribution of election fliers. The fliers, which Philadelphia voters report continuing to receive in recent days, do not mention Brown but have similar wording as his official campaign literature, which emphasizes that he’s the only one of the leading candidates who hasn’t held office. They also use the same orange accent color.

“We’re hearing the same things over and over from the same tired elected officials,” reads one PAC mailer. “They had their chance — and failed repeatedly.”

The judge’s previous and current decisions allow For a Better Philadelphia’s nonprofit arm to continue paying for the fliers, as long as they don’t mention a candidate name.

Brown admits working with the PAC, but denies he broke the law

Brown denies violating campaign finance rules. He called the charges “a political hit job” by the Board of Ethics and alleged in a TV interview that the board inappropriately leaked information to the press.

He told NBC10 he had proof of the board violating its own rules, but declined to provide evidence. 

The ethics board was created 17 years ago in response to a wave of corruption convictions and is widely seen as apolitical. Patrick Christmas, chief policy officer of the good-government group Committee of Seventy, wrote last week that “the members and staff of this independent agency have performed their jobs with the utmost integrity.”

Super PACs like For a Better Philadelphia are allowed to raise unlimited sums, and to spend money to promote candidates and encourage voters to go to the polls. By funneling donations through a dark-money nonprofit organization they can also keep their donors secret.

However, they are barred from coordinating with individual candidates or campaigns. Brown has admitted communicating with the PAC last year and attending a fundraiser it held.

The board alleges that because the PAC coordinated with Brown, its expenditures on TV commercials on his behalf constitute campaign contributions that vastly exceed the city’s limits.

Ethics board executive director J. Shane Creamer said the PAC and nonprofit have racked up $160,000 in $2,000 fines for a string of violations.

Those fines and other possible sanctions could be decided in future court proceedings.

Candidates for mayor of Philadelphia discuss issues related to public health during a April 4 forum moderated by WHYY’s Maiken Scott at the Public Health Management Corporation in Center City. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

PAC officials say constitutional rights are under attack

The PAC on Monday sought to frame the court complaint as an attack on free speech by an overreaching Board of Ethics.

The board’s request for an injunction against the PAC “is another example of their intent to steer outcomes in favor of maintaining the status quo at the expense of the democratic process,” said Dan Siegel, a senior adviser to the PAC. 

Matt White, an attorney for the PAC, told Billy Penn the dark-money nonprofit that is paying for the fliers “has an absolute constitutional right to engage in political speech” and “it is shameful for the board to suggest otherwise.”

The nonprofit intends to continue distributing election materials, but it won’t advocate for the election or defeat of any particular candidate, reference any particular office, or use campaign slogans from individual campaigns, the agreement says.

White argued that the complaint relies on a definition of illegal coordination that is only an opinion of the Board of Ethics and is not legally binding. He said there was no violation because Brown had not yet officially declared his mayoral candidacy when he helped the PAC raise money.

“There is no campaign until there is a candidate. The ethics board knows it has no case,” he said in an email. In addition, the board’s “innuendo about Jeff Brown’s role with For a Better Philadelphia has been vastly overstated.”

Ethics Board ‘stands by its factual allegations’

Creamer, the Board of Ethics director, declined to discuss the specifics of the PAC’s statements, saying the board would not litigate its case in the press.

“The board stands by its factual allegations presented in court and brings this case to enforce the city’s contribution limits. We disagree with defendants’ misinterpretation of the city’s law,” Creamer said in an email.

PAC adviser Siegel provided Billy Penn with a supportive comment from state Sen. Tony Williams, who in 2015 settled his own allegations of campaign finance violations during his unsuccessful run for mayor. 

Williams described the board’s allegations against Brown as “meddling” that unfairly damaged the candidate and accused the board of violating ethics rules “for a political end.”

“I’m concerned at how obviously the board overstepped in their attempt to put their fingers on the scale of such a consequential election,” he said.

Williams paid an $8,000 penalty and reimbursed the city $10,000 for investigative expenses in 2015. The board alleged he accepted six campaign donations that exceeded the city’s limits and wrongly relabeled $62,927 in Senate campaign funds as mayoral campaign funds.

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Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...