"There was only one package of bread purchased by the campaign in 2011."
-- From, "Mayor's Spending Habits Appear Hard to Break," by Rob Holbert, in Lagniappe. His reporting ignited the
campaign finance scandal involving Mobile Mayor Sam Jones, and spawned an apparent criminal investigation of the mayor.
An Open Letter to Mobile District Attorney Ashley Rich
Subject: Request for Corrections to Your Campaign Expense Reports To Bring Them in Compliance With the Alabama Fair
Campaign Practices Act; and Request for Supporting Documentation of Your Campaign Expenditures
From: Eddie Curran
Attn: Mobile District Attorney Rich
Mobile District Attorney Ashley Rich
Dear District Attorney Rich,
I was for many years a reporter with the Press-Register, and viewed innumerable campaign filings, sometimes wide-eyed with dismay. In reading the stories about Mayor Sam Jones campaign spending in Lagniappe, and to a lesser extent, the Press Register, I've been surprised by the excess of minutaie especially in contrast to the dearth of context as regards what might be termed the "history and/or norms of political spending in Alabama."
While no longer a reporter, I occasionally write about local or state politics on my web-site, EddieCurran.Com, or an associated "blog" page. The "Jones campaign scandal" re-sparked an old fascination with campaign expenditures. I decided to do some research and write a few pieces on the subject. This "Open Letter" to you is the first of these.
As you may know, prosecutions of alleged violations of Alabama's Fair Campaign Practices Act have been astonishingly few since the act's passage in the late 1980s. I believe, but certainly stand to be corrected, that there have been only two.
That's not many, and certainly too few, considering the thousands of candidates who have run for office in Alabama since its passage, and the massive sums of money given and spent by those candidates to say nothing of the often dodgy Political Action Committees (PACs).
Though your office has not to my knowledge confirmed that it has undertaken a criminal investigation of Jones, it has been widely reported that this is the case, such as with the issuance of subpoenas. (According to Holbert, the Lagniappe stories "launched" your investigation.)
There may be very serious issues regarding the mayor's expenditures that your office was made aware of and that rise far above the usual errors in such reports (such as by wayward or untrained campaign helpers) to say nothing of the frequently inexplicable expenditures (and dubious contribution practices) that have been allowed to go unchecked for decades.
In other words, you may be aware of information about Jones' campaign finances that suggests activities far worse than the somewhat unregulated "norm" for such spending.
Certainly, the level of minutia reported by the media on Jones' expenditures and a decision, if it occurred, to open a criminal investigation into the mayor's expenditures could, if applied consistently, herald a new level of scrutiny to such expenditures. This could have implications on all candidates for public office in Alabama and is newsworthy beyond what it means for Mayor Jones.
(For the Lagniappe stories, go to: http://lagniappemobile.com/. For coverage in the Press-Register, go to Al.Com. Google searches of "Sam Jones" and "Lagniappe" would provide most if not all the stories by both publications.)
As part of my effort to bring some context to the "Jones scandal," I am requesting that your campaign provide me or otherwise make public the complete spending records of your campaign fund since its inception.
I seek, with a possible future report on your expenditures (and on some other elected officials as well) to be able to match the level of detail present throughout Lagniappe's reporting on the mayor's campaign spending.
For example, the following, from, "Mayor's spending habits appear hard to break," published today (May 30) and written, as with all the Jones stories, by Holbert:
"There was only one package of bread purchased by the (Jones) campaign in 2011."
Specifically, and metaphorically as well, I want to be able to report with 100 percent certainty whether or not your campaign has ever purchased a "package" of bread.
Holbert only knows this detail because the Jones' campaign went vastly above and beyond the disclosure requirements to provide the media with copies of his campaign's receipts from Sam's. I can't say for absolute certain that no Alabama candidate has ever provided that level of disclosure to the media. Unique in the annals or not, it definitely is rare.
Of course, the campaign law does not require candidates to turn over, such as to the media, supporting documentation of expenditures, but merely to list the expenditures by date, payee, amount, and category of spending.
I like to think that, as District Attorney -- and someone who has made the very rare prosecutorial decision to conduct a criminal inquiry into campaign expenditures -- that you would want to not only match but exceed the Mayor's most unusual release of the supporting documentation of his spending.
I know of no distinction between expenditures from Sam's and those for all other campaign expenditures, including but not limited to the detailed supporting records/receipts for credit card purchases, telephone bills, and high-dollar services rendered by campaign consultants, which are common in campaigns.
As such, this request is for supporting documentation for all of your campaign spending.
Also sought are receipts supporting $3,692.74 your campaign spent in 2011, when you were not involved in a political campaign.
I intend to provide examples of your supporting records on my web-site and perhaps to scan some of the bills, as the Press-Register did with some of Jones's receipts. I hope to add similar details from the expenditures of various other candidates as well.
In addition to seeking supporting documentation for your campaign spending (see requests below), I am asking you or your campaign to amend your 2010 campaign reports in order to come into compliance with the Alabama Fair Campaign Practices Act.
As you may know, the expenditure forms that candidates must complete contain 10 categories, and a separate box -- almost never used -- for "Other." The 10 categories are: administrative, advertising, consulting/polling, contribution (such as when a campaign donates money to another campaign, a PAC, or a charity), food, fund-raising, loan repayment, lodging, and transportation.
The first category, "administrative," appears to serve as the "catch-all" category for candidates.
For example, there is no category for, "campaign headquarters" or "campaign offices," so they generally are declared as being "administrative." Same with phone bills, credit card bills, and, to toss out one example of literally hundreds, flowers (a not uncommon expenditure, believe it or not). One could go on and on and on some more with examples of purchases categorized by candidates as "administrative."
Many do not comport with one's idea of the meaning of "administrative," but that's the way it is and has been, probably since the advent of these forms. (As you may know, Jones has been harshly criticized by labeling most if not all expenditures as "administrative.")
A review of your campaign filings reflects that your campaign neglected entirely the requirement to categorize expenses on two reports during your 2010 campaign.
This suggests that you either personally failed to identify expenditures by category or failed to adequately monitor the campaign staffer tasked with this important responsibility. In any event, none of the expenditures on those two reports are identifiable by category.
Here are some but by no means all of the "uncategorized" expenditures on those two reports:
-- $108.99 on May 18, Best Buy
-- $268.35 on April 10, Sam's
-- $261.32 on Oct. 2010, Sam's
-- $74.99 on Oct. 29, Wal-Mart
-- $395.12 on April 20, Capital One (credit card)
-- $387.20 on May 19, Capital One
-- $611.29 on Nov. 2, to Capital One
-- $350.61 on Dec. 24, to Capital One
-- $32.98 on May 26, Books-A-Million
-- $192.50 on Oct. 30 at Claude Moore's Jewelers
-- Payments totaling more than $1,000 to three individuals (naming them is not necessary here)
-- $240 on Nov. 1, 2010, to Ashley Rich (yourself)
I will note that similar expenses are categorized in your other reports. But even when that's the case, there's no way to know exactly what was purchased.
For example, because he provided records to the media, we know that the Jones' campaign fund has purchased quite a bit of bottled water. Has your campaign fund purchased any water. His has purchased orange juice. Has yours?
There simply is no way of knowing the answer to these and many other questions (Claude Moore's?) from the available records, and there will not be until you make public your supporting documentation.
Also, a glance at the expenditure totals on your final report for 2010 showed that the totals for two pages (as you know, the forms require totals for each page) are identical. Both show $1,383.06 spent. A review of the expenditures on those two pages reflects that you/your campaign "under-reported" the expenditures on one of the pages by $557.61. Whether or not that threw off your overall spending total for that report or the entire year, I did not take the trouble to find out.
Conceivably, this was done to conceal more than half a thousand dollars in purchases of bread. (A bad joke for which I apologize.)
Let me note that I don't suspect even the slightest wrongdoing on the part of you or your campaign. For example, were I still a reporter, and happened to review the above-described filings -- and I reviewed lots of them -- the expenditures noted here, the almost certainly meaningless oversight of not categorizing them, and the even less important "page total" error would not merit a news brief, much less a story.
Mobile Mayor Sam Jones
There is no way to know exactly why you have opened a criminal investigation into the Mayor's campaign spending. If indeed it was as a result of the reports in Lagniappe, I will note some concerns I have about things that have been reported by the media, primarily by Lagniappe but in the Press-Register as well.
One is the over-arching context of Jones having done some grievous wrong by spending his campaign dollars in years in which he was not running for office. I intend, with reporting I am working on, to go into more detail, but the suggestion that it's unusual for politicians to spend campaign funds in "off years" is wildly off-base.
As I'm sure you are aware, funds in a campaign account are not public funds, such as tax dollars. The latitude given campaign spending is considerable, and includes all manner of expenditures related in ways vague and otherwise to the person's responsibilities in office or even, it seems, that result from the person having once been in office.
I provide the following true statements solely for context:
"In the absence of a campaign, or even the possibility of one, former Gov. Bob Riley's campaign fund has spent over $1 million in the five years since he was last a candidate, including more than $64,000 last year, when he was a private citizen for all but the first two weeks of the year. It is impossible to determine, on the surface, and without seeing supporting documentation, the relationship of much of this spending to his campaign or position as governor or, as regards 2011 spending, as a non-candidate former governor."
"In the absence of a campaign, Attorney General Luther Strange's campaign fund spent $168,310 in 2011. That sum included $300 to the Texas State Bar Association. The web-site of the Texas bar reflects that Strange, an attorney, maintains a dormant law license there. The $300 payment, whether to renew or maintain his dormant license or for some other purpose, was listed as 'administrative' on his campaign reports."
"In the absence of a campaign, your (Ashley Rich) campaign spent $3,692.74 in 2011, including $298.32 at Sam's, $11 at Family Dollar, $62.11 at Wal-Mart, $51.62 at Party City, $8.80 at Dollar General, $98.90 to Rosebud, $500 to Twist, and $332.50 to two individuals, including $250 for 'food' paid to a close relative."
A list of such examples of "non campaign year" spending by elected officials in Alabama and presumably elsewhere could be as long as you wished to make it, assuming you had forever to work on it.
(One can only imagine what Rob Holbert, given his often demeaning coverage of Jones -- such as referring to him in print as, among other names, "Sammy" and, "Sammy J" -- would make of a $250 payment by Jones' campaign to a close relative of the mayor's. What would you, as an investigating prosecutor, make of a payment to a relative of the mayor? Would you supboena the records and seek supporting documentation?)
Another concern I have is, as best as I know, specific to Robbie's reporting (just making a point to show how truly demeaning that appears when in a news story or column.) He reported in his first story -- in fact, made much of it -- that Jones' campaign has repeatedly and willfully violated the frequency of reporting requirements of the Alabama Fair Campaign Finance Act.
As an elected official and district attorney, you probably know that changes were made to the campaign law in 2010, though some or all of them didn't go into effect until last summer. The new filing requirements are in some cases quite confusing, especially for political action committees and for filing in the month directly preceding an election.
Among the new requirements is one that is quite straightforward: Candidates must now file monthly reports of contributions and expenditures starting one year before they next appear on the ballot.
The language is quite clear in the law and in summaries of the law provided by Secretary of State's Office on its web-site.
Most people expect Jones to seek re-election as mayor in Mobile's next municipal elections. That election will occur in August 2013. There are of course no primaries for Mobile's municipal elections. Jones, then, is not required to file monthly campaign finance reports until later this summer. Any declaration in a news story that the mayor is in violation of that portion of the law, especially that he is willfully ignoring the law, is incorrect and would seem to require a correction.
Based on Holbert's interpretation of the law, innumerable elected officials throughout the state are in violation of the new requirement. For example, neither last year nor in any month so far this year have Gov. Robert Bentley, Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, Attorney General Luther Strange, or Secretary of State Beth Chapman filed monthly campaign reports. Nor did former Gov. Bob Riley, who, as noted above, made expenditures from his campaign fund in 2011 and may still be making them in 2012 (his fund still has money in it.)
To state what may be obvious, that list includes the state's top election official (Chapman) and the one charged with enforcing campaign laws (Strange.)
One line of inquiry for the DA's investigative staff to consider: Why didn't Sam Jones spend more or for that matter any of his campaign funds at local restaurants or drinking establishments, to say nothing of eateries and "bars" in other cities and states?
Anyone who has spent any time reviewing expenditure reports, especially those involving legislators, has seen enormous payments from these funds to eating and drinking establishments of the highest and lowest rank, and during "non campaign years" and probably late at night as well.
Jones, it would appear, served a lot more people for a lot less by stretching his campaign dollars by going to Sam's and buying stuff for big barbecue chow-downs, which, if you think about it, aren't that unusual in the annals of Alabama or for that matter Southern politics. As Holbert so helpfully pointed out in his most recent story, Jones campaign bought, among other things, charcoal, lighter fluid, and "more than five pounds of meat flavor enhancer."
I feel certain I've read that Jones is a teetotaler. If so, that may explain the lack of even one alcoholic beverage, such as a beer bought at Sam's. I didn't spend much time scouring the receipts posted by the Press-Register, but feel certain that even a single "Bud" would have been major news if purchased by Sam and Sam's.
As a contrast -- an entirely harmless and mild one, admittedly -- your campaign spent $200 at Via Emilia Restaurant about a week before the election. I ate there recently and it was delicious. But couldn't you have gotten more bang for your campaign donors' buck by shopping at Sam's and cooking yourself? Did any campaign funds go that evening towards, say, wine, beer or stronger? (I know for an absolute fact that beverages in all three of those categories are sold at that establishment.)
What, come to think of it, was the specific connection of that meal to your campaign?
Personally, I could care less and am sure it was campaign related. However, given your office's apparent decision to open a criminal investigation of the mayor, supporting documentation for this meal and every other dime spent by your campaign should be made public. I look forward to seeing these receipts and records as well as any explanations you might like to provide.
Author's Note: This "Open Letter" was written on my own, with no payment or encouragement from anyone, and no one even knowing I was doing it. All the research was done by me and any mistakes are my doing as well. I suppose it would be accurate to say I know Sam Jones. For example, were I to see him on the street, I feel fairly sure he would know who I was, but that's about the extent of it.
Lastly but most importantly: Stuff like this takes time. Quite a bit of it, if you must know.
Therefore, know that I will accept donations for this piece, and to help fund other campaign finance reports I'm working on, or for all the other "free" material on my web-site and blog.
Like SuperPacs, I can accept donations of unlimited amounts, and would have zero problems, such as regarding a troubled conscience, with cashing a check from a candidate's campaign fund or a PAC. I would suggest to any public officials considering making a donation to me that they categorize it as a, "Contribution," though "Administrative," or for that matter, "Consultants/Polling" would work for me just as well. Some people don't even complete that part anyway.
Make checks payable to Eddie Curran and send them to my business P.O. box, which is:
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Mobile, AL 36670
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