Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

DNC host committee goes to court to keep its fund-raising under wraps

The Democratic National Convention's host committee went to court Thursday to stop the release of any fund-raising records pending the outcome of an appeal the committee filed at the same time.

Advocates of open records protesting Wednesday outside the home of David L. Cohen, host committee member and Comcast executive.
Advocates of open records protesting Wednesday outside the home of David L. Cohen, host committee member and Comcast executive.Read moreTRACIE VAN AUKEN / For the Inquirer

The Democratic National Convention's host committee went to court Thursday to stop the release of any fund-raising records pending the outcome of an appeal the committee filed at the same time.

The Philadelphia 2016 Host Committee is fighting the release of the quarterly fund-raising reports it is required to file with the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development (PAID), the public agency that guaranteed it a $15 million line of credit. Last month, the state Office of Open Records ordered those reports released to the public.

The committee is appealing "because we fundamentally disagree with the office's interpretation of the law," spokeswoman Anna Adams-Sarthou said in an email following the filing of the appeal in Common Pleas Court. "As we have said throughout this process, these documents contain proprietary information, and releasing them would be detrimental to the host committee's competitive position as it concludes its fund-raising efforts and negotiations with vendors."

Thursday was the 30-day deadline for PAID to either release the documents or appeal to a judge.

"It's a decision we leave to the host committee," said Paul Deegan, open-records officer for PAID. "They have the right to appeal."

The host committee filed a one-sentence motion to appeal Thursday, and requested "extraordinary relief" to prevent any release of financial documents until the appeal is decided.

All of which may mean the public will not get to see the full list of who is donating, and how much, to pay for the July 25 to 28 Democratic convention here until it's over.

The host committee has maintained that it will only release its donor list and expenses 60 days after the convention, the deadline set by the Federal Election Commission.

Freelance journalist Dustin Slaughter filed a complaint in Common Pleas Court late Wednesday asking that PAID be ordered to release the records, since they have been deemed public by the state Open Records Office.

"It's very unfortunate that the host committee seems to be holding the city hostage by inserting themselves into a matter in which they no longer should be involved," Slaughter said Thursday. "They're making a mockery of the notions of transparency and accountability."

Deegan declined to comment on Slaughter's filing, saying PAID's lawyers were reviewing it.

As the Inquirer reported Sunday, nonpartisan watchdog groups and others have sharply criticized the committee's insistence on not releasing its full donor list, or any precise numbers of how much the committee has raised or spent, until after the convention.

On Thursday, one of those groups, the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, released a report - "Funding the Presidential Nominating Conventions: How a Trickle of Private Money Turned Into a Flood" - that criticizes the rising use of corporate money to fund political conventions.

"In order to restore the public's confidence in our democracy and political process, the FEC should close the loopholes that have allowed corporate money to dominate both parties' conventions and Congress should reestablish a robust public financing system," the report concludes.

Adams-Sarthou said the host committee has less than $3 million left to raise, putting it on track, she said, to meet its fund-raising goal. As of Thursday, she said, the committee has $55 million in cash and confirmed commitments, and about $16 million in in-kind contributions.

By comparison, the Cleveland host committee for next week's Republican National Convention is nearly $6 million short of its $64 million goal, Emily Lauer, spokeswoman for that committee, said Thursday.

If the Philadelphia committee does not raise sufficient cash, it will have to tap into that $15 million line of credit, extended by PAID - in effect, by the city's taxpayers.

As part of that deal, the committee promised to file quarterly fund-raising reports to PAID, complete with donor names, amounts, and spending.

Slaughter and the Inquirer requested the reports through the state Right to Know Act. PAID denied those requests, deferring to the host committee, which asserted that the reports "constitute or reveal a trade secret or confidential proprietary information."

The Office of Open Records ruled, however, that the committee had not shown how making the reports public would likely cause any "substantial competitive injury."

Mayor Kenney, who appoints all five board members of PAID and is honorary chairman of the host committee, has said he would prefer transparency.

"When the mayor asked the host committee to release their fund-raising numbers, he was told . . . that early reporting of donors, who have been promised their support would not be reported until the FEC filing, could negatively impact the final weeks of fund-raising," Lauren Hitt, spokeswoman for Kenney, said Thursday. "So while, from a transparency standpoint, the mayor would like the records to be released, from a fiscal standpoint, he also doesn't want to do anything that could burden the taxpayer."

Because the committee is a third party that would be affected by the release of the requested documents, the host committee is allowed to intervene, Erik Arneson, executive director of the state Open Records Office, said.

Deegan said costs of the appeal are not being paid with taxpayer money. The Ballard Spahr law firm - where the committee's chairman, former Gov. Ed Rendell, is special counsel - is providing legal services as an in-kind contribution.

The committee did make one thing public Thursday: It announced plans to have seven pop-up street-level stages along Broad Street, from Arch Street to Washington Avenue, featuring local musicians and performers during the convention.

The Broad Street Arts Activation project is being funded through an $80,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. 215-854-5520 @InqCVargas