By Mike Dunn
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A seven-year legal battle stemming from the 2007 Philadelphia mayor’s race has finally come to an end, with a ruling this past week by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, those involved disagree as to whether the decision has implications for next year’s mayoral race.
At issue was whether, under the city’s campaign finance law, a candidate’s legal costs should be counted toward limits on campaign expenditures.
Back in 2007, US Rep. Bob Brady (top photo), a candidate for Philadelphia mayor, faced a legal challenge from rival Tom Knox, and Brady racked up nearly a half-million dollars in legal fees.
The city’s Board of Ethics said the law firm, Cozen O’Connor, could not under the law simply write off that debt, because that would constitute a campaign contribution to Brady in excess of the limits.
Attorney Stephen Cozen disagreed, and a seven-year legal battle ensued, culminating in a ruling in Cozen’s favor last week from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
“We can forgive the debt in toto,” Cozen explains, “because the cost of ballot challenge litigation, which often comes about involuntarily — that is, you don’t choose to have somebody sue you to keep you off the ballot — is not an expenditure that is within the definition of a (campaign) contribution.”
But Shane Creamer, executive director of the city’s Board of Ethics, says the decision will have little impact going forward, because back in 2010 the board established a new regulation with specific criteria to allow for legal fees to be written off.
“So, if those criteria are met, and they submit an application to the board, vendors — ever since 2010 — are able to have this ability to forgive debt,” Creamer tells KYW Newsradio.
Another issue in the lengthy legal battle was whether the city’s campaign finance limits apply to costs incurred by a candidate after the election — in this case, after the May 2007 Democratic primary that both Brady and Knox lost.
Cozen argued that the limits under the law at that time would only apply to pre-election costs; the Board of Ethics said it applied to all costs.
Creamer said application of the limits at all times — even after the election was over — is vital.
“That would prevent candidates from backloading their campaigns by telling vendors to wait (to bill) until after the election,” he notes.
And in fact, Creamer says, the finance law has since been tweaked to clarify that the limits also apply after the election.
“In 2010, City Council amended the law at the (ethics) board’s recommendation to expressly apply the contributions limits post-election,” he says.
So, because of that change and the new Board of Ethics regulation to allow certain vendor write-offs, Creamer believes this state Supreme Court ruling will have no impact on next year’s mayoral race.
“The decision does not affect the law that has applied since 2010,” he says, “so it should have no impact on next year’s races.”
Cozen, though, takes a different view. He believes the high court’s ruling, allowing Brady’s legal fees to be written off, is huge for future candidates.
“It is the establishment of a principle that is extraordinarily important,” Cozen says, “because what the Supreme Court said was that we do not consider the cost of ballot challenge litigation to be within the definition of ‘contribution.’ Otherwise, you’ve got rich candidates challenging poor candidates, who can’t afford to defend themselves unless they can go out and raise money.”