Monday, April 29, 2002
Holden Alleges Ethics Panel Treats Candidates, Campaigns Differently
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
Councilman Nate Holden Friday attacked the city Ethics Commission for treating elected officials differently when it decides which campaigns to audit and for levying fines arbitrarily and impulsively.
Holden made the accusations in a press release sent out Friday as he wrapped up the second day of his hearing in front of the commission to determine whether he violated campaign finance laws during his 1999 re-election campaign.
Holden and his campaign treasurer, Anne Froelich, are charged with 31 violations, including accepting $5,150 in contributions that exceeded the city limit of $500 per person for each election. The commission also accused the pair of submitting 20 additional matching fund claims for contributions that had already been matched with public money, resulting in an award of $2,720 in excess matching funds.
Each violation could result in a penalty of up to $5,000. If all the accusations are sustained, the figure would be $155,000.
Holden and Froelich had agreed to stipulate to 27 of the 31 counts Thursday but changed their minds after being advised by Deputy City Attorney Anthony Saul Alperin that the agreement would be an admission of guilt would prevent them from having recourse in the courts.
Holden claimed the commission spent numerous hours picking apart the campaign contributions of elected officials who represent poorer areas of town while merely glancing at the records of officials who rake in millions in contributions.
“Because I am part of a small group of elected officials who represent low-income and immigrant constituencies, my campaigns have been audited with a vengeance,” Holden said.
Commission Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham rejected the accusations.
“I think it’s unfortunate that Mr. Holden needs to characterize our process in this light,” Pelham said.
Pelham called Holden’s statements “simply deflective tactics” that were being used as a way to skirt the real issues.
Holden and Froelich claim they discovered many of the errors before the commission conducted its own audit and returned the excess contributions made to the campaign.
But those efforts are not being recognized by the commission because of its standard of treating all excess contributions as violations, Holden said.
“[B]ecause of a strict liability standard, the Ethics Commission did not acknowledge that my campaign reported its own accounting errors and returned these campaign contributions,” Holden said. “Instead, the Commission chose to punish my campaign for, in essence, doing the right thing and turning ourselves in.”
Pelham said the commission can only determine whether the violation occurred, not whether the candidate or treasurer intended to commit them.
“Did [the violations] occur, and if they did then the candidate and the treasurer are responsible,” Pelham said.
Holden also lashed out at commission staff for not providing him with the number of staff hours spent investigating other elected officials. The commission staff debated with Holden for over an hour and a half during the Thursday hearing over whether he should be given that information, which would have to be tallied since hours are not accounted for in that way and because the hours spent auditing other campaigns is not relevant to Holden’s case.
“At [Thursday’s] hearing, only when I threatened action in Superior Court did they reluctantly agree to relinquish these documents,” Holden said. “What does staff have to hide?”
The two sides eventually compromised Thursday and Holden was provided all of the auditing information he wanted Friday, Pelham said.
The councilman also attacked the commission for not having written guidelines for calculating fines levied by the city Ethics Commission, a point Holden made in his opening statement to the commission.
Holden expressed outrage at the variation between the fines and penalties, noting that fines have ranged from $400 to $700 a violation while commission staff are recommending an “outrageous” $1,500 per count.
Holden’s hearing is scheduled to resume 8:30 Tuesday at City Hall, Room 1060.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company