The hotly contested Democratic primary for Philadelphia District Attorney isn’t being waged only at the voting booth. It’s also being waged in the media — and in America’s fourth-largest media market, that costs big money.
Because the region’s unique footprint covers multiple metropolitan areas, television and radio ad time are quite pricey—as in millions of dollars. This fact, and the introduction of out-of-state political action committee funding during Larry Krasner’s first election four years ago raise significant questions about the state of campaign finance laws in Philadelphia—and their enforcement.
Despite Philadelphia law capping individual donations at $3,100.00 and PAC/corporate donations at $12,600.00 per calendar year, Larry Krasner was able to amass $1.7 million in supportive PAC donations, primarily from billionaire George Soros, during his first campaign. This year, Krasner’s campaign lists $421,486 in donations taken in from January 1 to March 29, bringing his total campaign treasury to $609,462.
Campaign Finance Limits (source: Philadelphia Ethics Board)
According to WHYY, Krasner’s largest donations come from outside the Philadelphia area, including singer John Legend and a number of progressive PACs from the San Francisco Bay Area and New York. He has also benefited from fawning national media coverage, including a recent PBS documentary called “Philly DA,” painting Krasner as the “reformer of a racist system.” This could raise questions about in-kind donations and potential FCC “equal-time” violations by a publicly-funded network.
Meanwhile, Krasner’s current Democratic primary opponent, Carlos Vega, reports taking in $335,374 in contributions in 2021, mostly from local donors, bringing his total war chest to $465,326. Vega’s biggest contributors include the Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers local PAC, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Painters and Allied Trade Union District Council 21 PAC, the Sprinkler Fitters Local Union No. 692 POAC Fund, and the Pennsylvania State Fraternal Order of Police PAC, all of which donated close to or the exact legal maximum of $12,600.
Vega’s most vocal donor, the Fraternal Order of Police, has cited Krasner for the record rise in violent crime over the last four years. The city’s firefighter and paramedic unions, whose members have also been exposed to the sharp increase in violence and drug overdoses in Philadelphia, have donated to Vega.
But each campaign’s total campaign war chest and public relations efforts tell only part of the story. The rest of the story is the Krasner campaign’s apparent willingness to blatantly evade or ignore campaign finance laws by an evidently intimate and lucrative relationship with a San Francisco political action committee, Real Justice PAC.
Recent reports by Ralph Cipriano at BigTrial reveal a connection between Krasner’s campaign and San Francisco-based Real Justice PAC. Cipriano reports that Real Justice has donated more than $100,000 to Krasner’s campaign, far beyond the legal limit of $12,600. Campaign finance filings also show that Krasner’s campaign reported $70,000 in marketing expenses to another San Francisco-based group called The Social Practice LLC, which describes itself as an “ideologically driven political consultancy.” It happens that both Real Justice and Social Practice share the same address — 3041 Mission St., San Francisco — and at least five lead staff members, according to their websites.
So, it would appear that the Krasner campaign is receiving both funding and marketing consulting from the same individuals who comprise a PAC, given how interconnected the two San Francisco groups are. This could be a violation of laws banning coordination between campaigns and PACs.
Additionally, according to Federal Election Commission reports, the Krasner campaign has not been properly reporting contributions from Real Justice PAC to local and state authorities. The group made a $25,000 campaign contribution to Krasner on April 15, 2020, and a $50,000 donation made on July 30, 2020, according to FEC records. But city and state campaign finance filings only show the $25,000 contribution. After BigTrial reported the discrepancies on February 19, the Krasner campaign filed an amended report listing the additional $50,000 contribution, stating it was a “contribution to non-campaign account.” That means his campaign is claiming that the $50,000 was not used for campaign expenses, despite Krasner being an active incumbent who was vocal about running for reelection.
But Krasner’s connection to this group of Bay Area activists doesn’t stop there.
Property records show that Larry Krasner personally owns a 40% interest in Tiger Building, LP, which owns the former Princeton Club located on Locust Street here in Philadelphia. One of the company’s tenants is Krasner’s campaign headquarters, which has expense records showing $29,450 in rent to the building. Another tenant sending rent checks to the company Krasner co-owns is Real Justice PAC. That means that not only is Krasner’s campaign paying rent to Krasner’s real estate investment, but one of his largest campaign contributors, a PAC, seems to be doing so as well.
As it’s illegal for PACs and candidates to coordinate directly, this arrangement seems a bit too cozy to be above-board.
These donors seem to have no fear of enforcement. Two years ago, for example, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics fined both Real Justice PAC and the Krasner campaign committee $23,000 for breaking the city’s campaign contribution limit law in 2017. In my February cover story for the Philadelphia Weekly, I wrote about how this flagrant law-breaking raises questions as to the role of the city’s Board of Ethics, and its inability to enforce PAC and in-kind donation limits on the Krasner campaign.
This prompted a heated response from J. Shane Creamer Jr., executive director of the city’s Board of Ethics, the following week. He wrote that the Board of Ethics doesn’t remove candidates from office, nor does it refer violations of campaign finance laws for prosecution like its federal counterparts do.
To me, this makes the Board of Ethics equivalent to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, doling out fines after the fact — but not much else.
At the very least, this episode exposes a loophole in city campaign finance law that enables candidates to circumvent the $12,600-a-year limit. Despite being an incumbent, Krasner didn’t “formally” announce his reelection campaign until February 2021, making Real Justice PAC’s contributions to Krasner in 2020 pre-candidacy donations, thus skirting the clear intent of the campaign law’s contribution limits.
Philadelphia has yet to remove a candidate or elected official from office, prosecute an offender, or create a strong deterrent to violations of its local donor limits.
As early as 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt recognized the need for campaign finance reform and called for legislation to ban corporate contributions for political purposes. In response, several federal statutes were enacted between 1907 and 1966 to limit the disproportionate influence of wealthy individuals and special interest groups on the outcome of federal elections, regulate spending in campaigns for federal office, and deter abuses by mandating public disclosure of campaign finances. While local laws have been enacted with the same goals in mind, these examples make it clear they lack teeth.
At least fifteen people have been imprisoned federally for violating campaign finance laws. Meanwhile, Philadelphia has yet to remove a candidate or elected official from office, prosecute an offender, or create a strong deterrent to violations of its local donor limits.
Regardless of the outcome of the May 18th primary election, it’s clear that the campaign finance irregularities on full display by the Krasner campaign deserve investigation — from the city Ethics Board, City Council, and perhaps even the state General Assembly. And they must find a way not just to create campaign finance laws, but to enforce them too.
A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his own experiences on both sides of the criminal justice system. He has served as a federal and municipal law enforcement officer and was the former Director, Office of Investigations with the American Board of Internal Medicine. @PublicSafetySME