Editor’s note: “The Money to Run” looks at contributions to the election campaigns of local politicians, state and federal. The series was reported by Penn State journalism students using public campaign finance reports archived on the websites of the Federal Election Commission, FollowTheMoney.org and OpenSecrets.org.
Pennsylvania’s campaign finance law imposes few financial restrictions on candidates running in commonwealth elections, but it does require detailed finance reports, which are made public on the Department of State website.
The key aspects of the 42-page document focus on how one becomes an official candidate and how to properly handle and report the money he or she receives.
A person is officially considered a candidate upon receiving a contribution or making an expenditure — independently or through a campaign committee — to influence his or her nomination to an elected office.
Once a candidacy has been declared, the candidate is encouraged but not required to form a political committee. The committees are often titled “friends of” that candidate.
Committees are required to appoint a chairman and a treasurer, who can’t be the same person. Candidates can form multiple committees, but the committees must operate with the same treasurer.
The committee is responsible for filing an annual campaign finance report. During election years there are six cycles that require reports, in addition to the yearly report.
The report must state the amount of money brought forward from the last filing, total monetary contributions and receipts, total funds available, total campaign expenditures, ending cash balance, value of in-kind contributions and unpaid debts and obligations. (In-kind contributions are non-monetary donations that carry value.)
Any monetary contribution that exceeds $50 must be reported. The contributor’s full name, address and date of the contribution are required. The contribution amount is unlimited, but the candidate is not permitted to accept cash donations.
In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the Citizens United case transformed campaign finance laws nationwide by allowing unlimited special-interest campaign contributions. The decision led the Pennsylvania Department of State to issue a statement in January 2010 noting that the state cannot constitutionally enforce its statute prohibiting special-interest contributions. It directed candidates to report such contributions in the same way monetary and in-kind contributions are reported.
Candidates must itemize campaign expenditures, including to whom an expenditure was paid, address, date, amount and a description of the expenditure. An expenditure is considered any payment of money or valuable thing to compensate a person or entity for services to a candidate or political committee.
If a candidate suspends or ends his or her campaign and financial activity, leftover funds must be disbursed. A candidate can either use up the money as an expenditure or return the contributions to the donor.
A signed and notarized report can be filed online or on paper, but a candidate cannot assume the office to which he or she is elected until the report is filed.
Failing to file a report can result in a misdemeanor charge against the treasurer of the committee or the candidate. The charge can carry a maximum fine of $5,000 or imprisonment for up to two years.
The full Pennsylvania campaign finance law can be viewed at www.dos.pa.gov.
Leon Valsechi is a Penn State journalism student.