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Philly’s ethics board is investigating campaign finance activities related to mayoral candidate Jeff Brown

Subjects of ethics board investigations are presumed innocent until proven otherwise, as is the case with criminal investigations.

Grocer Jeff Brown is so far the only mayoral candidate who has benefited from TV ads funded by a "super PAC."
Grocer Jeff Brown is so far the only mayoral candidate who has benefited from TV ads funded by a "super PAC."Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia Board of Ethics is investigating campaign finance activities related to mayoral candidate Jeff Brown, according to a person who was approached by the board as part of the probe.

Victoria Perrone, a Philadelphia-based campaign finance compliance consultant, said she was interviewed this week by Shane Creamer, the board’s executive director, about her knowledge of the early efforts by Brown’s team to organize its strategy for the mayor’s race.

“They said they were just doing an investigation into some of Jeff Brown’s campaign finance activities,” said Perrone.

Perrone said she is not working for Brown’s campaign or any groups supporting him, but had a discussion with Jimmy Cauley, who is now Brown’s campaign manager, about possibly joining the team roughly a year ago.

Brown, a ShopRite proprietor, is the only viable mayoral candidate running in the May 16 Democratic primary who has never held elected office. But he vaulted to the top tier of the crowded field with an expensive and high-profile advertising campaign early this year, during a time when all but one of his rivals could not afford to buy airtime.

Brown’s campaign and a “super PAC,” an independent group supporting him, have already spent more than $2 million boosting his candidacy on the small screen. The ad buys have changed the shape of the race and given him a leg up by building name recognition at a time when few potential voters are aware of who’s running.

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It is so far unclear whether the board is looking into Brown’s campaign, independent groups backing or connected to him, or both. Creamer last week said he could neither confirm nor deny an investigation, as is required by the board’s regulations. Investigations are kept private until resolved, and subjects of ethics board investigations are presumed innocent until proven otherwise, as is the case with criminal investigations.

Dan Siegel, a consultant for the super PAC, declined to comment.

The ethics board is made up of five mayoral appointees, and it enforces Philadelphia’s public integrity laws, including those regarding campaign finance, lobbying, and political activities by city employees. Its professional staff, led by Creamer, conducts investigations into potential violations of those rules, usually triggered by complaints.

Most of its investigations conclude with settlement agreements in which the offending candidates or political committees admit their errors and agree to pay fines. The ethics board can also refer cases to law enforcement if it discovers criminal wrongdoing.

It’s unclear whether the investigation will be complete before the May 16 primary, and Perrone said she was unsure of the extent of the inquiry.

She said she declined to join the team supporting Brown last year because she at the time was working for two other politicians who appeared likely to join the race. But she said she was also unsettled by Cauley’s questions because he asked if she had experience with a variety of types of campaign finance entities, some of which would be prohibited by law from coordinating with each other.

“I basically mentioned that I’m not sure that’s totally kosher,” Perrone said. “During the conversation, I said I would not be able to do all of these committees at once because that [would be] a problem.”

On Saturday, The Inquirer asked Cauley and Brown together about the investigation. Cauley responded that he was instructed by the Board of Ethics that he can neither confirm nor deny an investigation. The board’s regulations prohibit people contacted by its investigators from publicly disclosing information they learned solely from being involved in a probe.

Brown is the only mayoral candidate to date who has benefited from TV ads funded by a “super PAC,” which is an outside spending group that can collect donations in unlimited amounts. Some super PACs avoid identifying donors by funneling money through political nonprofit organizations, which don’t have to reveal their supporters.

Candidates, on the other hand, must disclose their donors and are subject to Philadelphia’s contribution limits, which in the mayor’s race this year is $6,200 from individual donors and $25,200 from political committees.

Because they are not subject to the finance rules that apply to candidates, super PACs are prohibited from coordinating with campaigns, meaning they cannot work together on strategies such as how to craft advertisements and when to run them.

» READ MORE: Super PACS made early picks for mayor in 2015 and 2019. This year, they’re in flux.

The super PAC backing Brown, For A Better Philadelphia, has already purchased more than $1 million worth of television ads. It reported raising more than $3 million in 2022, more than 80% of which came from a nonprofit with the same name that was registered with the state last April.

The super PAC has made headlines for using footage of former Gov. Tom Wolf and former First Lady Michelle Obama without their permission in ads boosting Brown, despite neither having endorsed him. Obama’s team said the footage was “manipulated.”

Those ads, along with $1.2 million worth of ads funded by Brown’s campaign, have helped raise the profile of the first-time candidate.

Former City Councilmember Allan Domb, a real estate magnate who has given $5 million to his own campaign, is the only other candidate who has spent significant money on TV thus far. Former Council Majority Leader Cherelle Parker became just the third mayoral candidate on TV last week with a $57,000 buy.

The two future mayoral candidates that Perrone was working with at the time of her conversation with Cauley were then-City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and Domb, who was still on Council. Both have since resigned from their offices to run for mayor, but Perrone isn’t working for either of them now.

Instead, she is consulting for two independent expenditure campaigns that will be active in several elections. One is being organized by the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance, which is backing former Councilmember Helen Gym in the mayor’s race, Perrone said. She declined to identify the second client, saying that it was still in the planning stages.

Before entering the mayor’s race, Brown in 2021 organized an unusual group called Philly Progress PAC that was registered with the state, but not the city, and spent $1.2 million over two years before going dormant about a month before he launched his campaign in November 2021.

The group raised eyebrows in Philly political circles when it first came to light in campaign finance reports in early 2022, and Brown’s team was tight-lipped about it at the time, saying only that it was not a campaign-in-waiting for Brown.

Because it was a state-registered PAC that was not tied to a Philadelphia election, the group was not subject to city contribution limits. It collected large checks, but had no obvious way of legally spending the money on the mayor’s race.

City ethics laws prohibit campaigns from using “pre-candidacy” donations that are larger than the city contribution limits for activities that will influence the outcome of the election. That money can be used for “exploratory” purposes, such as paying for polls to determine whether someone would be a viable candidate.

Earlier this year, Cauley said the PAC’s purpose was primarily to educate Brown on policy issues.

“Mostly it was just the education of Jeff. I just wanted to make sure he was up to speed,” Cauley said in February. “I would call it more think tank than political apparatus.”

The group paid for some policy consultants, but the majority of expenditures last year — more than $446,000 of the almost $717,000 spent — went to seven people who are now staffers on Brown’s campaign team.

Cauley alone was paid about $434,000 by Philly Progress PAC over two years, and Jeff Brown’s son Scott received about $75,000 in that period.

Staff writers Chris Brennan and Jonathan Tamari contributed reporting.