CAMPAIGN FINANCE BUGABOOS BUG BIANCHI, MAZZEO … MAYOR NOTIFIED ON APRIL 3, 2013 OF LAW BREAKING BUT KEEPS PUBLIC DOCUMENT HIDDEN UNTIL NOW … PLANET’S INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING UNCOVERS ABUSE
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, FRIDAY, SEPT. 20, 2013) — Campaign finance law has its many arcane nooks and crannies, its nuances and subtleties. It’s surprising that there are not more campaign finance violations that actually occur. That being said, many more occur than are reported, and there is a feeling common among campaigns that the benefits are worth the risk. If you get caught, chances are it won’t be reported. If it is reported, all you’ll have to do is sustain a light tap on the wrist and make good for the money you should have in the first place. Your backers will excuse the gaffes, and as for the rest of the public, well, backers don’t give a hoot about them.
The next point to make: Campaign finance laws are The Law. The state provides extensive information on these laws, and it’s the responsibility of every campaign to learn the law, understand the law, and obey the law. That’s why campaigns employ managers and treasurers, people who can run checks and cross checks to ensure that all is being done in accordance with the books. Violations of campaign finance laws leave open the door to doubt: “If he or she is cutting corners here, then where else are they doing it?” MAybe somewhere, and maybe nowhere, but it’s a reasonable question to answer.
This said, it’s with advisement that anyone draws irrevocable conclusion from violations of campaign finance law. The best thing to do when violations occur if you run a campaign organization is to understand what went wrong and make sure not to do it again. Admit your mistake, learn from it, and — oh, by the way — make it public. Yeah, make it public, because it is a reflection upon your total performance not just in office but in quest of office. Sometimes, the second tells us more than the first. Candidates and office holders are often the last to realize that the electorate — that is, the regular people — appreciate unforced honesty.
The best thing to do when violations occur if you are a journalist is to try to find out about it. That’s easier said than done. First, virtually all campaigns try to keep news of violations from the public, particularly when they are adjudicated during the next campaign. Second, adjudications are generally not reported. Third, after the accusation, the state has to make a ruling and agree on law breaking or not. Fourth, it will then issue notice of the decision to the law breaker and to the whistleblower. It will not issue a press release. Fifth, though the documents are public records, campaigns do everything they can to keep such news hidden. That’s just human nature. So much for “transparency.”
Needless to say, a previous violation makes one wonder if other violations are happening now.
STATE FINDS BIANCHI BROKE CAMPAIGN FINANCE LAWS IN 2011
THE PLANET has learned that Dan Bianchi and Melissa Mazzeo, running for re-election as mayor and councilor-at-large in Pittsfield respectively, have been found guilty of violating campaign finance law by the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) in Boston. The state issued its findings in April 3 letters to Bianchi and Mazzeo. A call to the OCPF confirmed the issuance of the letters.
The OCFP received a complaint that alleged that during the 2011 campaign, the Committee to Elect Dan Bianchi “received undisclosed in-kind corporate contributions.” These contributions stem from an Oct. 12, 2011 fundraiser sponsored by Sheriff Tom Bowler at Mazzeo’s Restaurant in Pittsfield. In the small world of Pittsfield GOB politics, Bowler, who was himself at the time running for high sheriff, worked mightily for Bianchi’s campaign that year. Bianchi returned the favor on Bowler’s campaign. Bowler’s sister, Donna Mattoon, served as Bianchi’s campaign manager and in a similar capacity for her brother. After the campaign, Bianchi named Mattoon to the position of director of administrative services in the mayor’s office. Mazzeo’s Restaurant is owned by Melissa Mazzeo and her husband.
Remember when you went to Disneyworld and went through those watery tunnels to the song:
It’s a small world, after all. / It’s a small world, after all. / It’s a small world, after all. / It’s a small, small world.
About “40-50 people attended the event,” says the letter addressed to mayor Bianchi on April 3, 2013 — more than five months ago. It’s interesting that there are those familiar with the event who say attendance was at least double that. THE PLANET was unable to confirm that. Be that as it may, for official purposes, THE PLANET concedes the lower figure.
The restaurant typically charges about $4-$5 per person for cocktails and hor d’oeuvres in an event of this type. However, the state found, that “neither [Bianchi] nor Sheriff Bowler reported any expenditures or liabilities for this event,” even though the restaurant “acknowledged that nobody was billed for the event. If you’re a regular guy off the street and you throw a little bash for 40 or 50 of your closest friends, chances are pretty good you’ll be slapped with a check before you get two steps within reach of the door. Not this time.
As the state points out to Bianchi in an April 3, 2013 letter addressed to him at his home at “9 LeRoi Dive” [THE PLANET assumes that the OCPF meant "Drive," unless the neighborhood has taken a turn for the worse], “The campaign finance law requires all candidates or political committees filing reports to ‘disclose the full name and residential address, lilsted alphabetically, of each person who has made a contribution … in an amount in excess of fifty dollars’ M.G.L. c 55, p 18.”
The OCPF letter also scolds the mayor “that business corporations may not ‘directly or indirectly give, pay, expend[,] or contribute, or promise to give, pay, expend[,] or contribute, any money or other valuable thing for the purpose of … promoting or preventing the nomination or election of any person to public office,’ and that political committees organized on behalf of a candidate may not ‘ solicit or receive from such corporation … any gift, payment expenditure, contribution or promise to give, pay, expend[,] or contribute for any such purpose.’ Violations of section 8 are subject to substantial penalties …’”
Since Mazzeo’s Restaurant didn’t charge Bianchi for the use of the restaurant, for any of the food, or for any of the beverages provided for that night on Oct. 12, 2011, the state found that Bianchi didn’t pay the restaurant one cent for the services. He didn’t do so because, as the state points out, the restaurant never billed Bianchi for that event. It’s the answer to an ancient philosophical question: What sound does a cash register make when a bill is not paid because a bill was not given for services rendered?
Looking at this episode from afar, it’s hard to fashion any kind of realistic, pragmatic, or plausible conditions whereby:
a.) Candidate A would have a such a benefit put on in his behalf by Sheriff B.
b.) The event would include food and beverages plus use of part of the restaurant.
c.) The restaurant would not charge a fee or generate a bill either for Candidate A or Sheriff B.
In other words, how could the mayor and his committee not know the event, which did not generate a bill, was a violation of the law? Why would the mayor or his campaign manager or his treasurer not have insisted on paying for the event? Could the answer be that they didn’t think they would get caught?
As the OCPF states, even though Bianchi wasn’t billed, he “was nevertheless required to pay [the restaurant] for the goods and services provided.” He also “was obligated to report the receipt of those goods or services as an in-kind contribution from [the restaurant].”
The fix or make-good was the tap-on-the-wrist letter — again, issued on April 3 of this year and never given the light of day by Bianchi, hiding it as he did from the people who elected him and who didn’t elect him, for he is their mayor, too. The state also required Bianchi to make a contribution of $250 to a charity of his choice.
Michael Sulllivan, OCFP director, notes also that “this letter is a public record. A copy will be sent to the person who brought this matter to our attention.” Even though it’s a public document, and even though an honest person sitting in the office of mayor would disclose it just to keep the record clean and transparent — you’ll recall “transparency” was a big deal for Bianchi during the 2011 campaign — Bianchi hid the letter.
The OCFP received a complaint against Mazzeo regarding her use of a catering truck owned by Mazzeo’s Restaurant. The truck deliverd food to poll workers and volunteers on Nov. 8, 2011, Election Day. Later that day, Mazzeo’s committee hosted a party at the restaurant to celebrate her win in the at-large race.
The state found two curiosities regarding these two items:
1.) Mazzeo’s committee did not receive a bill for the use of the restaurant’s catering truck and did not pay the $320 per diem associated with its use. That’s what any other customer would have to pay for use of the truck.
2.) Though the victory party was held on Nov. 8, 2011, no payment was made to the restaurant until March 6, 2013, 16 months after the fact. The state found this long delay “troublesome.”
3.) Even though Don Davis stated that he paid $410 for the coffee, donuts, soup, and eggplant parm used to feed volunteers on Election Day, Mazzeo’s re-election committee did not disclose any receipt of this contribution from Davis. Campaign finance law required her to do so.
4.) Related — In May 2011, Mazzeo’s re-election committee hosted a fundraiser at Mazzeo’s Restaurant. The state said that “Thomas and Penny Angelini … provided the food for that event as a cost of $618, and that the food was intended as an in-kind contribution from the Angelinis to” Mazzeo’s committee. Neither Mazzeo nor her committee, however, disclosed this donation.
As in the case of Bianchi, Mazzeo is a seasoned campaigner. The campaign had an obligation to know such non-disclosures would be problematic. With the candidate herself, her manager, and her treasurer, not one of them realized this?
Based on the failure to disclose these contributions, the state ordered Mazzeo’s committee to pay the Commonwealth of Massachusetts $320.
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Moral of the story: There too often seem to be two sets of laws in Pittsfield. The first one if for the hoi polloi, the unwashed, the bedraggled taxpayers, and the honest, hard-working average people who give the city its life and character. That first set of laws is inflexible. When Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski violate even the letter, they have to pay in full or else.
The second set of laws are the ones that apply to the privileged — those who have money, power, or Know The Right People. These Beautiful People of Pittsfield can break the law at will. Most of the time, their buddies will help them cover it up. They will circle the wagons, and the law breaker won’t have to worry about a thing. If and when the crimes of The Privileged are exposed, the messenger is always blamed, and the GOB rushes in to either make it go away or mitigate the damage. As for the exposure, The Big Shots know they won’t have to worry one bit about the mainstream local media, led by The Boring Broadsheet and the non-existent news staffs of local radio.
In light of this, one has to wonder: During Campaign 2013, what laws if any are being broken by whom? Who can you trust, as the old game show used to put it.
It’s getting so you can’t trust a single one of them. That’s why we say our ideal candidate is one who doesn’t want the office. To crave political office in Pittsfield is pretty much advertising that you want to sell you soul for your entry into GOB-dom.
Does one sell eternity to get a toy?
“God’s lioness, / How one we grow, / Pivot of heels and knees! — The furrow // Splits and passes, sister to / The brown arc / Of the neck I cannot catch.” — Sylvia Plath, from “Ariel,” (1965).
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.