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Wilkerson pays her second campaign finance related fine

by Linda Rodriguez
managing editor
Thursday Aug 7, 2008
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The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office announced Aug. 1 that South End state Senator Dianne Wilkerson has agreed to pay a $10,000 fine as part of a settlement agreement with that office and the Office of Campaign and Political Finance; this will be the second time Wilkerson has paid a fine for campaign finance violations during her tenure in the Legislature.

This settlement stems from charges of campaign finance irregularities - including that Wilkerson may have used her campaign funds for personal use - filed against the senator by previous Attorney General Tom Reilly in 2005. The agreement dictates that Wilkerson will pay a civil forfeiture of $10,000 of her personal funds and will release a nearly $30,000 debt that she claimed her campaign committee owed her for un-reimbursed expenditures made through 2007. Moreover, Wilkerson’s campaign is now required to follow reporting guidelines more strict than existing laws, in order to ensure that the reporting errors don’t happen again.

"This agreement should ensure that Senator Wilkerson and her campaign committee are and will be accountable in the future," Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a statement released by her office. "Senator Wilkerson has agreed to an array of extensive public reporting and [Office of Campaign and Political Finance] oversight measures that we hope will guarantee full compliance with campaign finance rules."

According to the Attorney General’s office, the office filed a civic enforcement action in Suffolk Superior Court in September 2005, alleging Wilkerson violated campaign finance laws in 2000 to 2001. The Office of Campaign and Political Finance then alleged additional violations over 2003 to 2004, referring those matters over to the Attorney General’s office for review. The campaign finance office also initiated reviews of Wilkerson campaign reimbursements and other practices in 2005 to 2007.

The original Attorney General’s filing in 2005 outlined a number of violations and concerning issues, including nearly $30,000 in unreported contributions and receipts deposited into the Committee’s bank account in 2000 and 2001; more than $13,000 in unreported or underreported committee expenditures; reimbursements to the senator herself that were at the time unverified as campaign-related expenses; and more than $15,000 in "consulting fees" that were made to Wilkerson’s two sons and to four other individuals. Later audits conducted by the campaign finance office raised questions about specific entries in the committee’s accounting books during 2006 and 2007, including a contribution from an out-of-state political committee, which is prohibited by Massachusetts campaign finance laws, and multiple reimbursements to Wilkerson and members of Wilkerson’s committee that were not fully explained.

Wilkerson characterized the campaign finance violations as "accounting errors" in an e-mailed statement and said that she had always believed that the "issues would prove to be matters of record keeping and accounting."

"The stipulation of dismissal and agreement filed by the AG today affirms my assertions," she stated. "I consider the matter now closed. My committee has worked to install several new practices and policies to ensure that these types of accounting errors will not be repeated."

Brad Balzer, deputy director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, said that the settlement agreement with the senator "encompassed" any omissions or errors made by the senator’s committee up until Dec. 31, 2007. Balzer also said that "there are some omissions in disclosure that won’t be remedied," due in large part to the lack of recordkeeping explaining the details of expenditures and contributions.

Melissa Karpinsky of the Attorney General’s Office said that the settlement agreement with the senator sufficiently resolved their investigation and that going forward, stricter regulations placed on the Wilkerson committee’s recordkeeping should ensure that similar mistakes no longer happen. "The thought is with this, these are controls that other folks the Legislature are not held to," she said. "These are controls that will prohibit this type of behavior going forward."

The controls include a prohibition on Wilkerson writing checks from the committee’s funds payable to herself; she and her committee will also be required to file monthly reports of receipts, reimbursements and expenditures. Additionally, the committee and Wilkerson are both required to obtain a campaign credit or debit card, use it to pay vendors, and submit the monthly statements to the campaign finance office; and to provide copies of all campaign contribution checks to the campaign finance office. Also, the committee must draft and submit a record-keeping policy to the campaign finance office for its approval.

Under the terms of the settlement, the campaign finance office can refer any violation to the Attorney General’s office for an immediate court enforcement action, without having to wait until after the election; under standard campaign finance laws, the Campaign Finance office would have to wait, creating a possible delay of up to two years. The agreement has also placed a $2000 fine on any future violations.

This most recent fine Wilkerson has agreed to pay is not her first. In 1998, the senator settled with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance over similar violations and agreed to an investigation by the Attorney General’s office into her recordkeeping. According to Balzer, Wilkerson paid an $11,000 fine out of her personal funds; in addition, her committee was asked to submit their records for review by an accountant prior to submitting them to the Campaign Finance Office. That agreement, however, lapsed in December 2001. For an elected official’s campaign finance violations to be referred by the Campaign Finance Office to the Attorney General not once but twice is relatively rare, Balzer said, but it has happened in the past.

"A lot of campaign reports and records contain errors and omission and they are remedied, for lack of a better way to put it, internally, here at OCPF," he explained. "And from time to time those errors and omissions are such that they result in a referral to the AG’s office. ... There was one other case where an individual was referred to the Attorney General’s office for errors and omission and errors in record keeping more than once."

The settlement announcement comes less than a month after Wilkerson kicked off her re-election campaign in what is fast becoming one of the most closely watched political races in Massachusetts. The senator, now serving her 15th year in the Legislature, is facing a fierce challenge from candidate Sonia Chang-Díaz, a 29-year-old Jamaica Plain resident and former school teacher who came very close to unseating the senator in the 2006 primary election. Chang-Díaz managed to secure 44 percent of the vote to Wilkerson’s 49 percent.

"I am focused right now on representing my constituents by completing the important business of my district as we wind down the formal session and in short order I will return to the district to begin campaigning full time," Wilkerson said.

Chang-Díaz said that the announcement of Wilkerson’s settlement was "important and significant."

"This is exactly why the district needs new leadership. I think it is why we’ve been getting such a great response from voters at the door because, people are very weary of this kind of politics and they are looking for a change," she said.

Linda Rodriguez can be reached at lrodriguez@southendnews.com

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