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Friday, October 19, 2012

Untold Story: How the CCA stole the 2010 election

From those openness and transparency people
By Will Collette

In 2010, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance stole the election – from itself – and won control of Charlestown town government for a second consecutive term. I’m going to tell you how they did it – a story that’s never been publicly told. 

Because so much of the CCA's campaign pitch revolves around the whopper that you should vote for them so they can continue to run an open and transparent government, this untold tale shows you just how far the CCA will go to violate that principle when it suits their interests.

Politics is always a rough game and can get really rough in small towns where there are long histories and feuds that extend far beyond the usual boundaries of politics. Charlestown is a case study for that.

But the 2010 election was one for the books because it pitted CCA candidates against each other. The new CCA, dominated by Dan Slattery and Ruth Platner, had fought a pitched battle during 2009 and 2010 against the “old” CCA Town Council slate that the CCA fought to get elected in 2008 when the CCA swept Charlestown’s election.

Those five CCA candidates elected in 2008 were excommunicated by the Slattery-Platner wing of the CCA for failing to follow orders and for supporting the Whalerock industrial wind turbine project. The decision by the 2008 CCA slate to support Whalerock (a bad decision, in my opinion) led to the CCA’s civil war. The effects of that civil war we still see today in the CCA’s hypersecrecy, mania about absolute obedience and paranoia.

In any election and particularly in Charlestown where not everyone pays close attention to town politics – unlike all of you Progressive Charlestown readers, of course – name recognition is everything. Most people who turn out to vote on Election Day are still undecided about who they will pick right up until Election Day.

So anything you can do to get voters’ attention so they remember your name is critical.

Thus, candidates spend money on yard signs, handbills and door hangers, direct mail and advertising in the Westerly Sun. Of course, there’s a lot of door-to-door campaigning, phone banks and meet-and-greet events, but to reach the greatest number with the greatest frequency, you have to spend money to advertise.

Democrats on the sidelines in 2010

In 2010, the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee had just emerged from its own reorganization struggle and had almost no candidates and no money. The CDTC had endorsed Rep. Donna Walsh for reelection; newcomer Larry Valencia running for House District 39; Henry Walsh, who was running unopposed for reelection as Town Moderator; and Melina Lodge, who ran for Planning Commission. In the month before the election, the CDTC had about $1000, which was enough for a small postcard mailer and some cheap handbills for the polls.

In other words, the CDTC was pretty much on the sidelines watching the three slates – the old ex-CCA incumbents vs. the new CCA slate (Tom Gentz, Slattery and Cliff Vanover) vs. the Jim Mageau/David Mars team plus independent Joe Dolock and semi-independent Lisa DiBello battle for control of the Town Council.

I know there were some Charlestown voters who were disappointed in the CDTC for not taking sides in the 2010 Council campaign, but under state party rules, the CDTC could not endorse non-Democrats.

Everybody is supposed to play by the same rules

Candidates, town political parties and quasi-parties (PACs) like the CCA must file detailed campaign finance disclosure reports at regular intervals. These reports allow you to track where campaign contributions are coming from and how those contributions are being spent. They help make the process fairer, provided everyone follows the same rules.

Except the "new" CCA

The “new” CCA, the one led by Slattery and Platner, cheated. 

I say that categorically because the CDTC caught them doing it, filed charges after it became clear what they had done, and the Board of Elections ruled that yes indeed, the CCA did cheat.

But there’s even more to it than what was filed in that complaint and what the BOE ruled.

Going into the last quarter of the elections, the CCA candidates and the CCA itself reported only very tepid fundraising and only very modest spending.

One month before the Election, all three CCA Town Council candidates reported exactly $131.16 in “in-kind” support from the CCA on their 28-days-before-Election report. All three Planning Commission candidates reported $15.60 in such aid.

Prior campaign finance reports by the CCA showed only $1009.91 in campaign expenses.

Yet starting the first week of October until Election Day, it was as if the floodgates opened and all of a sudden, it was raining CCA propaganda!

The clandestine CCA ad blitz got all their
candidates elected - except Cliff Vanover
(Cliff's official CCA campaign pic)
Yard signs everywhere. Full-color direct-mail pieces in the mailboxes. Frequent large ads in the Westerly Sun, Charlestown Press and Chariho Times, including a full-page one in the Press.

All of this stuff cost a fortune and gave the CCA a terrific advantage going into Election Day. Because of it, five of the six men that ran under the CCA banner won[1]. Only Cliff Vanover failed to win.

But despite this last-minute advertising blitz, all six candidates filed identical final campaign finance reports seven days before the Election showing absolutely no campaign expenditures. As if all those signs, flyers, newspaper ads and direct mailers came as a gift of providence.

After the votes were counted, the dust settled and the new CCA slate had taken control of town government with the help of “independent” Lisa DiBello, the CCA and its six guys filed campaign finance reports showing how they stole the election.

The entire last-minute blitz was funded out of the pockets of the CCA candidates and steering committee members. They paid for the yard signs, printing of flyers, the newspaper ads and direct mail out of pocket and didn’t declare it as either campaign contributions or loans.

Then, on Election Night, probably during their victory party in the secret CCA clubhouse, they received their reimbursement checks.

In all, the CCA had hidden $4,449.77 that was spent on the advertising blitz in the last 30 days that put five of the six men on their slate over the top.

These hidden expenditures – not revealed until after the election when the individuals were reimbursed by the CCA – broke down like this:

  • Tom Gentz, elected as Town Council President, shelled out $934.73 for magnetic signs, leaflets, the Westerly Sun ad and refreshments.
  • Cliff Vanover, husband of Planning Commissar Ruth Platner and the only CCA slate member to lose, advanced the organization $2,407.90 for the cost of a direct mailer, postage, labels and leaflets as an in-kind donation that wasn't reported until after the election.
  • Kate Waterman, a Planning Commissioner and CCA Steering Committee member, paid $880 out of pocket for postage for a CCA mailer.
  • Kallie and John Jurgens, who were CCA President and Treasurer, respectively, at the time, advanced the organization $205.74 for refreshments (lots of them), postage and leaflets.
  • Finally, high-roller Deputy Dan Slattery, former CCA President and newly elected Town Council Vice-President, spent $21.40 for flyers.
It's not illegal for candidates or members to cover expenses out of pocket. You have to pay up front for printing and advertising, as these vendors do not extend credit during political campaigns. If you want your stuff printed on time, usually a member will put the bill on his or her credit card and then get reimbursed.

The CCA paid off on Election Day
However, campaign finance disclosure law says that you must report such transactions – whether they are gifts, loans or in-kind donations – in the period when you make them. The CCA and its candidates chose to hide them until after the Election.

The CDTC filed charges with the Board of Elections stating that the failure by the CCA and its slate of candidates to report these transactions either as campaign expenditures or as in-kind contributions prior to the Election when they occurred violated campaign finance law.

The Board of Elections agreed, finding that the CCA did, in fact, violate campaign finance disclosure laws[2]. But it was too late for all those other candidates in 2010 who played by the rules and lost.

What the CDTC didn’t say in its complaint to the BOE, but could have, is that the CCA and its candidates coordinated their actions. From the 28-day pre-election filing the candidates filed showing no fundraising and no campaign spending to the final report filed by 7 days ahead of the election, the CCA and its slate kept their reports totally in synch.

After extensive internal debate, the CDTC decided not to charge the CCA and its candidates with deliberately breaking the law – because the CDTC did not possess direct evidence that the CCA and its candidates conspired.

However, the carefully choreographed campaign finance reports show a level of precise moves that seem to me to be impossible to pull off without knowledge and mutual consent of all the parties..

The CCA later said it committed the violations because they were in the middle of changing treasurersexcept that was yet another lie. John Jurgens was the CCA Treasurer during the entire period when the campaign finance laws were broken and continued to sign the CCA’s campaign finance reports until April 29, 2011.

In fact, the CCA did not announce that John Jurgens was replaced as Treasurer until six months later. Then, the CCA filed the form with the Board of Elections to officially replace Jurgens with Leo Mainelli on July 7, 2011, eight months after the Election.

Personally, I think it’s pretty lame to blame problems on the last guy, but it’s especially terrible when you lie about it. But lying is standard operating procedure for the CCA.

I don’t know how much difference it might have made to the other candidates if the CCA had reported the outpouring of cash from its high-rolling members or their October advertising blitz.

But the voters and the other candidates had the right to know, and upon knowing, to make voting and campaign choices accordingly. That big burst of last-minute spending might have caught media attention and sparked some voter dismay. Instead of getting five of their six men elected with high ranking totals, the final result could have been different.

The pattern for the CCA for the past six years has been to raise very little money until the very end of each election cycle. Then they raise a bundle and turn on the spending spigot full blast.

That pattern is sure to be repeated. Indeed, Town Council President Tom Gentz was overheard to say that he knows a guy who will write them a $10,000 check. I’d like to see that because the legal limit under Rhode Island’s election law is $1,000 per person.

[1] In addition to Gentz, Slattery and Vanover running for Town Council, the CCA also ran James Abbott, George Tremblay and Gordon Foer for Planning Commission.

[2] Failed CCA candidate for Town Council Cliff Vanover filed a retaliatory complaint with the BOE alleging that the CDTC broke campaign finance laws by not providing candidates it endorsed with the figures for the amount of in-kind support the CDTC had provided. 

The BOE threw out Vanover’s complaint, noting that his claim was false because the CDTC did, in fact, provide the candidates with those figures.