Mayoral candidate and state Auditor Tim Keller testified Thursday that he doesn’t think he broke any city rules by asking supporters who wanted to help him to write checks to Rio Strategies, the firm running his campaign.
But a prominent Democrat and Keller supporter expressed misgivings about the practice after news broke about what the campaign was doing.
Keller was one of three witnesses to testify before the state Board of Ethics & Campaign Practices during an evidentiary hearing called to determine whether he broke city campaign finance rules over the manner in which his campaign handled in-kind contributions. The Ethics Board has yet to rule on the matter.
Keller, a Democrat, is running against City Councilor Dan Lewis, a Republican, in Tuesday’s mayoral runoff.
“We believe that we did everything in the right way,” Keller said during questioning from Pat Rogers, the attorney arguing that he did break the rules. Keller reported close to $38,000 in in-kind donations.
County Commissioner and former mayoral candidate Wayne Johnson, a Republican, filed a complaint against Keller in September alleging that his campaign “falsely reported these cash contributions as ‘in-kind contributions’ on several reports” submitted to the city Clerk’s Office.
Keller is a publicly financed candidate and, as such, he generally can’t take cash donations. He was allowed to take up to $38,000 in in-kind contributions, which is defined as goods or services, but not money.
Keller and his two attorneys argued that neither he, nor his campaign, received the money at the center of this case. Instead, they said, the checks went to Rio Strategies, which is an independent contractor and a vendor of the campaign. They said that money paid for Rio Strategies’ services.
Keller testified that it was no different than a supporter of another publicly financed candidate writing a check to Kinkos for goods or services to benefit that candidate.
A city campaign auditor previously said that type of transaction is allowed for publicly financed candidates, Alan Packman, a partner at Rio Strategies testified earlier in the day.
“We did this — and I did this — because we thought it was a more accurate way to account for in-kind donations,” Keller said.
But Rogers, who is representing Johnson in the matter, said it was a black and white issue. He told the board that campaign finance rules are clear that in-kind contributions cannot be cash. He said Keller’s campaign accepted $37,000 in donations it wasn’t entitled to.
“They’re not entitled to do what they did … ,” Rogers argued.
And he introduced an email exchange between Packman and former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, one of several Keller supporters who wrote an in-kind check to Rio Strategies to benefit the Keller campaign.
In the exchange, Packman sends her a statement that had previously been put out in which the campaign contended that it wasn’t surprising that the Republican Party “is filing a frivolous complaint against the leading candidate for Mayor.”
In her response, Denish writes, “Every in kind donor needs this Now. I have had 3 emails just this morning. Sadly most of this problem is at your feet not the R’s.”
The board plans to continue its deliberations no later than Monday, at which time it could issue a ruling.
Keller is also facing two other campaign finance ethics complaints. One alleges that he is illegally coordinating with a political action committee that formed to support his mayoral run. The other complaint alleges that he has failed to report the legal expenses he is incurring on required campaign finance reports.