Senator fined $10,000 in election funds case

August 14, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson has acknowledged that she violated campaign finance reporting laws and agreed to pay a $10,000 personal fine to settle a state lawsuit filed in 2005.

The settlement agreement requires Wilkerson to give back $2,200 in “unlawful” campaign contributions that were accepted as recently as 2006—after the lawsuit was filed. She must also stop seeking more than $20,000 she claimed her own campaign owed her. The agreement places strong, detailed restrictions on Wilkerson’s campaign fund activities that will remain in place until 2015.

The agreement also gives Wilkerson immunity from further legal action on any campaign finance allegations dating through last year—when, the Gazette has learned, the state raised new concerns.

“This agreement should ensure that Senator Wilkerson and her campaign committee are and will be accountable in the future,” said state Attorney General Martha Coakley in a press statement.

In a written statement to the Gazette, Wilkerson offered no apology and made no reference to violating the law. She said the agreement “affirms my assertions” that the various state complaints “would prove to be matters of record keeping and accounting.”

“I consider the matter now closed,” Wilkerson wrote. “My [campaign] committee has worked to install several new practices and policies to ensure that these types of accounting errors will not be repeated.”

Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat challenging Wilkerson in next month’s primary election, said the matter is not closed at all.

“With the settlement, after years of misleading the public about the validity of the charges…Wilkerson has admitted to breaking the law,” Chang-Díaz told the Gazette.

“It’s what turns people off from politics,” Chang-Díaz said. “That is precisely why people need new leadership.”

Chang-Díaz previously made a relatively strong run against Wilkerson in 2006 with the then-pending lawsuit as virtually the only issue in the race. At the time, Wilkerson called the issue a “personal” matter that should be kept out of the campaign. Wilkerson lost the JP vote that year but won district-wide, earning her eighth term in office.

Chang-Díaz noted that the settlement ends the case without explaining such items as thousands of dollars in reimbursements paid to Wilkerson and others. Wilkerson’s campaign is in the process of filing amended reports that may explain the expenditures.

“The settlement addresses future concerns, but there are a lot of outstanding questions about where the money came from [and went],” Chang-Díaz said.

William Leonard, a Socialist Workers Party candidate also running for the 2nd Suffolk District seat held by Wilkerson, could not be reached for comment.

This is the second time Wilkerson has been sanctioned for campaign finance violations. In 1998, she also paid a fine and agreed to new reporting guidelines. But by 2000—two years later—she was violating campaign finance reporting laws, according to the current settlement.

All of the campaign finance violations and allegations are civil complaints, not criminal charges.

In 1997, Wilkerson was convicted of failure to pay federal income taxes, fined and place under house arrest. She got into further trouble for violating the house arrest.

Wilkerson is an attorney who oversees a lot of finance-related work in the Senate. She chairs the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee; is vice-chair of the Financial Services Committee; and sits on the Ways and Means Committee and the Bonding, Capital Expenditure and State Assets Committee.

Violations

Campaign finance laws are intended to reveal who candidates get money from and how it is spent. The laws also restrict various kinds and amounts of campaign contributions. All candidates have to file some type of campaign finance report, which becomes a public record.

The 2005 lawsuit targeted Wilkerson’s 2000-01 campaign finance reports. Major allegations in the lawsuit included about $26,900 in unreported income; about $11,300 in unreported expenditures; unexplained “consulting fees” of about $15,500 paid to various people, including Wilkerson’s sons; unexplained reimbursements of about $20,300 largely paid to Wilkerson and one of her sons; unreported political action committee (PAC) contributions; and “illegal” contributions from corporations and a federal PAC.

Days before Wilkerson’s 2006 re-election, the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) forwarded new allegations to the Attorney General about her 2003-04 campaign finances. The allegations included “personal use of campaign funds,” “receipt of excess contributions” and accounting and disclosure problems.

The Gazette has learned that OCPF notified Wilkerson’s campaign directly about still more apparent violations in 2006 and 2007. The Gazette has obtained copies of OCPF “audit letters” describing the problems. The most recent one was sent only two months ago.

In 2006, OCPF wrote, thousands of dollars in reimbursements paid to Wilkerson, her sons and others were not explained or described. Nine union PACs reported contributing money to Wilkerson that did not appear on her own campaign finance report. Several individual contributions over the $500 a year limit were reported, including from Mossik Hacobian, president of the local community development corporation Urban Edge. And, while anonymous contributions are illegal, Wilkerson’s report included $700 given by “Know Name [sic].”

In 2007, according to OCPF, Wilkerson accepted unlawful campaign contributions from a corporation and an unregistered PAC. OCPF was also concerned about her campaign fund balance. It inexplicably went from more than $46,000 on Dec. 31, 2006 to $45 in the red on Jan. 1, 2007—the very next day.

Restrictions

In the lawsuit settlement agreement, Wilkerson only acknowledges that she “violated” campaign finance laws in specific, limited ways: by “failing to maintain adequate records” in 2000-04 and by operating a campaign committee without a treasurer for more than two years in 2002-04.

But the agreement covers the full 2000-07 period and requires corrections for more recent alleged violations.

The agreement places unusually strong restrictions on Wilkerson’s campaign finance activity. The new rules fill five single-spaced pages in the agreement.

The rules require OCPF approval for virtually any significant campaign finance activity. That includes reimbursing anyone for campaign expenses; allowing anyone to use campaign credit cards; and the committee’s choice of a treasurer.

Regular candidates have to file campaign finance reports three times a year in an election year. Wilkerson will have to file the reports every month, even in non-election years. She will also have to file extra reports about campaign debt and “in-kind,” or non-cash, contributions.

The rules bar the campaign from paying for anything with cash except in special situations. The campaign must attempt to get a credit or debit card and make payments with that, then send every monthly card statement to OCPF. Wilkerson is specifically barred from writing campaign checks to herself.

The rules also require the formulation of extensive record-keeping and organizational guidelines.

If Wilkerson violates the agreement in any way, the Attorney General’s Office is authorized to immediately go to court and seek a $2,000 fine per violation. The agreement gives Wilkerson immunity from further “civil, criminal, or administrative claims and charges” about her campaign finances through Dec. 31, 2007.

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