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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fringeville Edition #4, June 22 2011

The verdict's in. Sitting County Commissioner A.J. Munchak and former Commissioner Bob Cordaro were convicted of multiple counts in their Lackawanna County corruption trial.

According to the Citizens' Voice, Munchak is facing up to 93 years in prison, and Cordaro up to 229. Appeals will follow.

Others will take apart the nuts and bolts of this trial far better than I can. My angle on this trial...in fact on all the corruption in Northeastern Pennsylvania...is from the point of view of someone who tries to do it right way. I've been a local GOP committee member and Treasurer for some years now. I've run for office. I make every effort (to the point of driving people buggy) to conduct finances in the spirit and to the letter of campaign finance law, despite how toothless that law seems to be.

Quite frankly, you can drive a bus full of cash through the holes in campaign finance law, and do so cheerfully and without fear. In short, if you are honest and do things the right way, you are at a disadvantage in these parts.

I had the dubious honor of being selected by lottery for a campaign finance audit last year when I ran for state representative. I was a one-man show and the campaign was a low-budget vehicle. The auditors asked for detail that I am sure many campaigns simply do not have. The audit showed me what a Treasurer should be doing. I had no issues because I'm anal and had everything they required. (So perhaps I've a brighter future in bookkeeping instead of politics).

I do believe the bulk of candidates do things the right way (or at least try to). But those who don't or won't can do so with impunity.

Which brings me back to the trial in Lackawanna County. My favorite quote was from A.J. Munchak, who claimed he thought all the cash was "accounted for on the cash line" of the forms.

Yes, there is a line for the "cash balance" on a Campaign Finance Report. But you have to account for all contributions and expenses before arriving at that balance. And the most anyone can give in CASH is $100 for a reporting cycle. You can only "account for" cash if you report it somehow on the form.

How can you do that if the size of the contribution was illegal? One way is by willfully reporting it as a bunch of "unitemized contributions." Those are contributions which are supposed to be $50 or less per contributor. You hide it there. This is assuming, of course, that you intend to report the illegal contribution and aren't, in fact, picking a big-screen TV at Best Buy on your way home. Or saving the moolah to buy a couple cars with cash.

So if you're a candidate and someone hands you an envelope with $1000 cash, here are your legal options:

1) Refuse the cash
2) Accept up to $100 and refuse the rest. Give the contributor a receipt, book the contribution properly, and note the origin of the cash contribution on the bank deposit slip. Educate the contributor on what the law allows, then help them up off the floor when they're finished rolling around and laughing hysterically.

Here are some of the illegal options:
1) Thanks! (And put the money in your back pocket)
2) Thanks! (And report the money as unitemized ...in essence saying it wasn't one illegal contribution but twenty legal ones.) Of course, you're supposed to keep names and addresses of the contributors, and you should note the contributors on the bank deposit slip, but hey, whoops, I thought the Treasurer had all that stuff. Here's my hand, slap it. Ouch! Ouch!

So ...can you "win honest" in NEPA? Well sure you can. You just have to work harder. But you'll enjoy sleeping like a baby after you file your campaign finance reports.

What scares me is that those who violate the law willfully seem to have no problem sleeping at night either.

JimboBillyBob