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Carpenters not alone in excessive gifts to Williams

It turns out that the carpenters weren't the only ones who blew through Philadelphia's strict limits when they donated money to State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams' mayoral run.

It turns out that the carpenters weren't the only ones who blew through Philadelphia's strict limits when they donated money to State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams' mayoral run.

An Inquirer review of Williams' campaign finance reports for 2014 identified five people who gave more than the city's $2,900 individual limit. Their donations above that cap totaled $10,450.

Those numbers came to light less than a week after the Carpenters Union's political action committee agreed to pay a fine to the city Board of Ethics for having given $21,500 last year to Williams' campaign - $10,000 above the city's $11,500 cap on donations by PACs.

The difference between city and state campaign laws helps explain why donors may have exceeded the city's limits.

Williams' campaign said Monday that it was negotiating with the Ethics Board over the individual donations identified by The Inquirer. "We are in active discussions with the Ethics Board on these cases and cannot comment while these talks are ongoing," spokesman Al Butler said. "We are very hopeful that this will be resolved very shortly."

The board declined to comment.

The Carpenters Union last week agreed to pay $1,000 as part of a settlement with the Ethics Board for having given in excess of the PAC limit.

The city's limits are strict: Political action committees cannot donate more than $11,500 in one calendar year to one candidate; individuals are limited to $2,900. According to Williams' campaign finance reports, these donors surpassed that limit in 2014:

George Bochetto, a lawyer who ran for mayor as a Republican in 1998, donated $7,900.

Ted Pagano, who owns a waterfront strip club and several key real estate parcels in West Philadelphia, gave Williams $6,900.

Nehemiah Kent, who listed addresses in Pittston, Pa., and Delaware on campaign finance reports, donated $3,500.

Wallace Coleman, founder of a Delaware-based construction contracting firm, gave $3,500.

Melissa Heller, chief executive of Commonwealth Strategies, a governmental affairs and lobbying firm, gave $3,150.

The donors' total giving in 2014 highlights the difference in state and city rules. State law does not limit how much an individual or a PAC can give to a state campaign committee, such as Williams' state Senate campaign fund.

But because the Williams for Senate campaign fund became the Williams for Mayor fund on Nov. 19, anyone who donated on or after that date had to abide by the city's limits.

Bochetto gave $5,000 to Williams for Senate on March 19, 2014. But once Williams declared for mayor, that meant Bochetto had reached his allowable contribution, per city rules, and could not donate to Williams for Mayor in 2014.

Yet Bochetto donated $2,900 to Williams for Mayor on Dec. 18.

Bochetto said he was unaware there was a problem with his donations.

"This is the first I hear of it," Bochetto said, adding that neither the Ethics Board nor the Williams camp had contacted him about the matter.

"I'm sure the Williams campaign will do the appropriate thing," Bochetto said. "If there's something to correct, they will correct it."

According to the city's campaign regulations, if a candidate or a campaign fund accepts a contribution above the limits, it is subject to a civil penalty of "three times the amount by which the accepted contribution exceeded the limit, or $2,000, whichever is less." The same rule applies for the donor.

Whether Williams' campaign, which reported having raised $425,897 by the end of 2014, has to pay back any money is unclear. The city code does not specify that donations exceeding the caps must be returned.

That was a surprise to David Thornburgh, chief executive of the nonpartisan watchdog group Committee of Seventy.

"This would suggest that someone could give $1 million, pay a $1,000 fee, and [the candidate] could keep the money," Thornburgh said Monday. "Then the limits are meaningless."

Nevertheless, Thornburgh said, "The right thing to do is for the Williams campaign to return the contribution."

The city's law does offer one incentive for campaigns to shun or return such donations: Anyone living in Philadelphia can sue a campaign to comply with the caps. If the suit succeeds, a court can force the campaign to pay the lawyers' fees.