The Philadelphia Board of Ethics sued freshman City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez yesterday, seeking to fine her $7,500 for alleged campaign-finance violations in her 2007 election.
The suit comes as the board faces resistance from Council members who object to the extent of its power in defining ethical behavior, and to what some regard as the arbitrary application of that power to selected politicians.
According to the suit, filed in Common Pleas Court, Sánchez violated a rule that restricts candidates to only one political committee for campaign expenses and donations. The suit, spurred by a confidential complaint 18 months ago, also names Sánchez's committee, Friends of Maria, and its treasurer, Peter Winebrake.
Specifically, the board alleges that Sánchez's committee improperly used another political committee, New Direction Philly.org, to pay for full-page ads in The Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News publicizing Gov. Rendell's endorsement.
Sánchez was one of six Council candidates running on a good-government platform who agreed to form New Direction to support their candidacies.
Ten of the ads featured all six candidates. But 10 others featured just Sánchez after her husband and campaign manager, Tomas, arranged with New Direction to take advantage of a discount offering 20 ads for $25,000 instead of 10 for $15,000. In essence, New Direction provided money up front to pay for the 10 Sánchez ads.
Although those ads stated they were paid for by New Direction, they were ultimately funded by Sánchez's committee, which disclosed in finance reports that it had repaid New Direction $10,000.
Also, Tomas Sánchez solicited money to pay for the ads by asking donors to give money to New Direction, another violation because only the candidate's committee can be used to collect contributions.
In all, the ethics board cited five violations at $1,500 apiece.
"The purpose of the single-committee rule is to make it easier to track the flow of money into and out of a candidate's campaign," said Shane Creamer Jr., executive director of the board. "If candidates use multiple political committees or bank accounts to either receive contributions or make expenditures, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to determine if the contribution limits are being obeyed."
Sánchez said yesterday that she had initially agreed to pay the $7,500 fine. "I did not know it was a violation," she said, noting that the campaign-finance rules were applied in 2007 for the first time. "But even though we disagreed with the infraction, we were willing to pay."
That changed when Creamer told her that as a standard procedure she must sign a statement accepting personal liability.
Sánchez refused, citing a concern that doing so would jeopardize her ability to continue in office if someone challenged her position under the Philadelphia Code. She said Winebrake, her campaign treasurer and lawyer in this matter, could elaborate on the issue, but he was not immediately available.
Sánchez said she had asked Creamer and chairman Richard Glazer for an opportunity to meet with the board to explain her worry. The board, in a letter two weeks ago, refused.
"This is going to discourage good-government people from running," Sánchez said. "If I ask for an audience with them to present my case, why don't I get it?"
Council's irritation with the ethics board continued yesterday, with Majority Leader Marian Tasco again railing against what she said was a "two-tiered" standard for the board and everybody else.
"I welcome an open and spirited discussion about ethics and ethical behavior. This discussion is not about whether Mr. Creamer personally is a good person or a bad person. This discussion needs to be about the definition of ethics itself and who has the final say about what the definition should be," Tasco said.
"As I see it," she said, "there are those who enforce ethics based on their own criteria and have determined for everyone what is right and what is wrong, who is right and who is wrong."