The state's public campaign finance program is being challenged both in the courts and by the state's budget deficit. As legislators try to figure out whether they can keep public money flowing, state elections officials are looking at how campaigns spent their money in 2008. With the second story in our series on public financing, WNPR’S Jeff Cohen takes a look at one of those campaigns.
The state says it gave a total of $8 million to political candidates in 2008 and that the overwhelming majority of those candidates spent their money as they were supposed to. State auditors are looking at records of 343 campaigns to make sure that public money wasn't misspent. Roughly 140 campaign audits have been approved so far by the State Elections Enforcement Commission. Only four are getting a closer look.
“Good morning, Abe Giles…”
Giles, a former Hartford state representative who ran again in 2008, is one of the four. Because his matter is still under investigation, state elections officials won’t say what their initial audit of Giles’ campaign revealed.
Giles raised roughly $5,000 for his campaign and then he got nearly $25,000 more from the state. But what came with that money is strict oversight, something Giles, and some legislators, say is nitpicking.
“They come up with some things I can’t even understand…It seems like there’s a problem with the people that passed the literature and that did other work that only received a little bit of money at the time. I guess we didn’t get them to fill out something and I didn’t know that it needed to be done.”
You may have heard of Abe Giles. He was arrested along with Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez last year and charged with trying to extort $100,000 from a private developer. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
In 2008, Giles ran and lost in the primary against Hartford Democrat State Representative Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey, in one of the poorest districts in one of the state’s poorest cities.
Foes have described Giles as a bad legislator who was nevertheless a hardworking, grassroots, fix-your-street-light kind of politician. And he’s a man who knows how to do business with taxpayers – from running city parking lots to evicting housing authority tenants to moving and storing their unwanted property.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that Giles - an old world politician in a new campaign finance world -- sees politics as a way to help his constituents make money, too. Take, for instance, poll workers.
“They live from day to day, they have to have something to get some food from day to day. Even if they had more money and bought a lot of food their kids would go through it in two or three days and they wouldn’t have nothing for the rest of the week or the rest of the month.”
Giles made roughly $6,000 in small payments to poll workers around the primary -- the kind of standard-fare political money in poor communities that Kirkley-Bey paid, too. He also spent money on advertising, food, postage, lawn signs and other incidental costs. That totaled up to nearly $8,000.
The second half of Giles’ money went to people he knew.
Records show he paid his grandson $1,000 for campaign buttons. And he paid another $1,000 to an old acquaintance in town to work as a singing bus driver and a campaign aide.
“He got overpaid. He got somebody else’s check and took off.
“Oh, no kidding," Cohen asked. "So you couldn’t get it back?”
“No, I didn’t even try to get it back. He was going back to Atlanta, or wherever.”
There’s more. Giles paid his own company $800 for rent. He paid Board of Education member Sharon Patterson-Stallings at least $2,000 for canvassing. And Democratic veteran Prenzina Holloway got $2,000 for grassroots political work – this just a few years after she was fined $10,000 by the state for absentee ballot fraud. Giles said he wasn't exactly thrilled with what he got.
“She was supposed to have a group of people. She brought one person over that was a leader of group, but the group never showed up. At all. I was completely unhappy.”
Holloway's daughter is rJo Winch, the Democratic Majority Leader of the Hartford City Council. Giles paid her property management company $2,100 for printing.
“She had a printing business. Incidentally, I thought it was more elaborate than it was.”
Walter Kawecki helped manage Giles’ campaign.
“It made sense to use her resources because, like I said, she knows a lot of people.”
“So it wasn’t just about paying her for the printing," Cohen asked, "but in choosing her to do the printing, it was keeping an influential person on the campaign’s side?"
“More or less, that’s correct. Yes.”
And, Kawecki says, it's the same reason Prenzina Holloway got hired, too.
“Prenzina can be very helpful on campaign. She knows a lot of people, as well as her daughter does. And having her on your side is better than not having her on your side.”
"So why are you talking to me?" Cohen asked.
“The City of Hartford is in trouble. I think part of the way to get out of the trouble is to shed some light on how campaigns are operated and politics in the city so other folks can get an idea of what’s going on, make more informed decisions, and participate more actively.”
Kawecki’s not the only one taking aim at Giles. His opponent in 2008, Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey, has harsh words, too.
“I believe that Abe got in the primary just because of campaign finance reform. And his whole thing was, how much of this money could I pocket?”
Giles says Kawecki and Kirkley-Bey have it all wrong. He was going to get in the race before he knew there was public money. And, besides, his whole purpose in running was about serving the city’s residents. That's it.
“As a mater of fact, I’m not at taker, I’m a giver.
“I have always, all my life, tried to get what service I could from the community I live in. And that’s the only reason. It wasn’t no kind of quid pro quo or anything like that.”
Without speaking to the Giles investigation, state elections officials say that one big or a collection of medium-sized problems can lead them to open an investigation. Should there be findings that documentation was lacking or that public money was misspent, an investigation could find violations of state elections law. That could mean candidates may have to pay money back and face civil penalties.
For WNPR, I’m Jeff Cohen.