Okay, so it’s not exactly the scandal of the century, but it is a great excuse to fire up the ol’ photoshop. Enjoy!
From today’s News Journal:
Clark’s icy treats melt into debate
By ADAM TAYLOR The News Journal
February 7, 2012
New Castle County Executive Paul Clark used $1,250 of his campaign funds to give Mr. Softee Ice Cream to county employees during a hot spell in August.
The “Ice Cream Days” on Aug. 24, Aug. 25 and Aug. 26 were held on county property during the employees’ working hours. A Sept. 16 event, for county library employees, was held at a hotel. Clark used the county’s email system to notify the employees about the events.
Delaware’s Elections Commissioner, Elaine Manlove, said the expense apparently violated the state campaign-finance law. Campaign funds shouldn’t be used for employee-appreciation events by elected officials, she said.
“I think he should reimburse his campaign fund and file an amended report,” Manlove said. “Food is an allowable expense, but it has to be for a campaign event.”
After defending the expense as a legitimate campaign expenditure last week, Clark said Monday he would reimburse his campaign.
County Attorney Gregg Wilson, a Clark appointee, said he doesn’t think the event broke any county laws about holding campaign events on government property.
Clark first misrepresented where the money for the ice cream socials came from. In his Aug. 22 email to all county employees, Clark said, “These Ice Cream Days will be paid for personally by me; no county funds will be used.”
In a statement Friday, however, Clark said, “I used campaign funds.”
In the Friday interview, Clark said all he meant by stating that he paid for the ice cream personally was that county funds weren’t used.
Clark, a Democrat, said the issue is much ado about nothing and blames the attention on the fact that he’s running for another term in office later this year. He also noted that former County Executive Chris Coons held employee picnics with county money.
“It seems very strange to me that I could have done the same thing using taxpayer funds and that would have been fine, but someone says that using non-taxpayer funds is wrong,” Clark said in the statement. “The silly political season seems to arrive earlier and earlier every two years. It’s a shame that somebody is trying to turn my gesture of appreciation to our employees into a political football.
“But if the Department of Elections says it’s a gray area, it’s hardly worth arguing over, and I’ve simply reimbursed my campaign for the amount and am filing an amended report,” Clark said in a statement Monday.
In a brief interview later Monday, Clark said the reimbursement hasn’t technically taken place yet. He said he’s looking into whether he can simply use part of the $31,200 he’s already loaned his campaign to pay back his campaign fund.
Manlove said the mechanics of the reimbursement haven’t been worked out yet. It’s unclear, she said, whether Clark can use money he already loaned to his campaign.
John Flaherty, president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, said the entire situation was avoidable. Clark could have simply used his own money, or even county money, for the events.
“This was just boneheaded and ridiculous,” Flaherty said. “I think there has to be a firewall between campaigns and government – and using campaign money for a thank-you event for government workers created the appearance of impropriety.”
Delaware law has a list of allowable campaign expenses. Spending money on food and refreshments is on the list, Manlove said.
Manlove and Paul Baldwin, the campaign-finance supervisor for the state’s Department of Elections, agree that the expenses are supposed to be related to campaigns.
The law on campaign expenses is vague, however. Other than the title “authorized campaign expenditures,” the law simply lists what money can be spent on, but doesn’t include precise restrictions and doesn’t explicitly say the expenses have to be for campaign events, Baldwin said.
Food and refreshments are on the list, and Baldwin said one could argue that county employees are a bloc of voters.
” … As long as you’re feeding voters, it doesn’t matter what subset of voters you’re talking about,” Baldwin said.
If the General Assembly wanted to prohibit an election official from using campaign money for an event on government property during work hours, those restrictions would be part of the law, but they’re not, Baldwin said.
Clark listed the Mr. Softee expense, made on Aug. 25, in his 2011 campaign-expense report filed with the state last month.
Manlove said her staff reviewed Clark’s report when it came in, but assumed that the Mr. Softee expense was for a campaign event. After learning from The News Journal that it was for a function created by Clark in his role as county executive, she said she thinks he should reimburse his campaign fund for the expense.
In an interview Friday, Clark said he assumed the expense was allowable. Later in the day, he said he asked attorneys about the expense before it was made, as well as after The News Journal questioned him about it last week.
“My lawyers told me that Delaware Law couldn’t be clearer: Campaigns can spend money on food,” Clark said in a statement Friday.
Manlove said, “The code has lots of interpretations.”
Attorney Richard Abbott said the situation shows that the state election laws are too vague and superficially interpreted.
“I’m sure the public will ask, ‘How can this be?’ but the state’s review of this could be, ‘Ice cream equals refreshments; refreshments equals a permissible expense; end of analysis,'” Abbott said.
Abbott noted that former County Executive Tom Gordon was allowed to spend $100,000 of campaign money eight years ago for personal legal expenses related to a federal grand jury investigation.
“That cries out for a change to the state Election Code,” Abbott said. “If he can do that, there’s virtually no limit to what you can spend campaign money for.”
Widener Law Professor Michael R. Dimino, an expert on election law, said Clark didn’t do anything wrong.
“The law explicitly says that you can pay for food with campaign money,” Dimino said. “And giving a two-dollar chocolate sundae to potential voters is no different than if he used his own money to buy bagels. If you really think there’s a problem here, then you’re saying you never want a government employee to do anything nice for his employees.”
A gray area
Charlie Copeland, a Greenville Republican and former state senator, said he’s troubled by the use of campaign money to pay for the events, which were held at the Government Center’s Conner Building, the Paul J. Sweeney Public Safety Building, the Louis L. Redding City-County Building and at the Christiana Hilton, which held a training day for employees at county libraries.
“If he used campaign funds to pay for the event, it’s by definition a campaign event,” Copeland said. “I wonder about the legality of using the county email system asking employees to come to the event.”
Wilson, who serves as Clark’s acting chief administrative officer in addition to county attorney, disagrees with Copeland’s assessment. Clark paid for an employee-appreciation event – not a political event – with campaign funds, and says that’s allowed.
There was nothing political about the Ice Cream Days, Wilson said. There were no campaign signs, buttons or speeches. Clark clearly identified himself as county executive in the Aug. 22 email to all county employees announcing his creation of the events and made no mention of politics.
County law prohibits fundraising or running a campaign event on county property, Wilson said. The Ice Cream Days didn’t violate those provisions, he said.
“The county executive has been very careful to avoid any political discussion or activity with county employees,” Wilson said.
Bill Shahan, an employee in the county Land Use Department who is running against Clark in the Democratic primary in September, said he thinks what Clark did was wrong.
“It’s definitely not something I would have done,” Shahan said. “It’s just too much of a gray area for me. I’m sure the man makes enough money to buy everybody an ice cream cone with his own money if he wanted to.”
New Castle County Republican Party Chairman John Rollins went further.
“It’s precisely this type of unethical behavior by county officials that has eroded Delawareans’ trust in local government, starting with the county executive,” Rollins said. “Unfortunately, this type of inappropriate behavior has become the hallmark of Mr Clark’s administration.”
An earlier version of this story was incomplete on delawareonline.
Contact Adam Taylor at 324-2787 or firstname.lastname@example.org.