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Strong Start, zoo campaigns failed to disclose 100s of thousands in donations, expenses

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Strong Start, zoo campaigns failed to disclose 100s of thousands in donations, expenses

Lax enforcement, compliance failures mean major transactions not promptly recorded

  • Bill Morrow/Flickr

The backers of the Strong Start Tucson education sales tax initiative for months failed to file prompt disclosures of large donations and expenses, a investigation shows. The No on Prop. 204 campaign also had a filing error.

Supporters of the proposed sales tax to fund Reid Park Zoo improvements also had missed filings.

The campaign contributions and expenses not properly filed with the Tucson City Clerk's Office totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Political campaigns backing or opposing initiatives in city elections are required to report donations and spending of $10,000 or more within 24 hours. Until questions were asked by, city officials and the pro-sales-tax campaigns were ignoring the law.

The Strong Start Tucson committee, promoting a City Charter change to fund early-childhood education, failed to file reports for $106,000 in high-dollar contributions and $136,000 in campaign expenses over a period of months.

The No on Prop. 204 committee, opposed to the 1/2-cent sales tax to fund Strong Start, has filed numerous 24-hour notices, but did not include a total on its first notice, describing a $30,000 contribution as "over $10,000."

The Future of Your Zoo committee, promoting a 1/10-cent sales tax to pay for upgrades to the city zoo, neglected to file reports on at least three donations totaling $120,000, as well as several major payments.

The groups claimed at various times that they were unaware of the filing requirements, contended they did not apply, or said the law was unclear.

Both Strong Start backers and the zoo group filed notices of large donations and expenses at the beginning of their campaigns, but later ceased to do so. While the large transactions in question were included in summary campaign reports, they were not promptly filed with the city as required.

Strong Start Tucson

In January and March, Strong Start organizers emailed the city to provide notice of donations ranging from $1,000 from a local restaurant up to $15,000 and $53,000 from Child and Family Resources, a social service agency that has been the primary funder of the initiative.

James Ratner, the committee's treasurer, acknowledged in those emails that the city had told Strong Start about disclosure requirements, but questioned whether they were applicable.

Strong Start filed regularly required summary reports after that, but did not submit any further 24-hour notices of large donations or expenses until the City Clerk's Office contacted the committee after raised questions this week about the lack of filings.

"We were not trying to conceal anything, but in good faith misunderstood what the city did and didn't expect of us concerning the notice requirements in face of new and extensive reporting requirements," SST's Ratner said.

"Within 30 minutes of the city notifying us that they expected notification as well as reporting, we happily complied, will continue to do so, and are grateful for the correction," he said.

Strong Start filed a single notification Tuesday evening, listing a dozen transactions that should have been previously noticed.

Wednesday night, the group submitted a notice of $80,000 in expenditures for that day, which was released by city officials Thursday.

Ratner said there have been "on-going changes," citing moves by the Legislature that changed state-level reporting requirements.

In January, a new state law did away with the 24-hour reporting requirement but the City Council reinstated the requirement in April and the law took effect immediately.

While there was no reporting requirement in effect when Strong Start filed notice of several large contributions at the beginning of the year, all of the committees campaigning for and against ballot initiatives have been required to promptly file such notices for months.

No on Prop. 204

Only the No on Prop. 204 campaign, which was organized last month, did so until this week.

Armando Rios, chairman of the committee opposing the Strong Start tax measure, said "campaign finance is a very detailed and intricate process. I would understand someone making a simple mistake. But when something is so egregious and so obvious, it rises to a different level."

Wednesday, Rios amended a notice regarding a Sept. 29 contribution from auto dealer Jim Click, disclosing that the total donation had been $30,000. That total figure was also listed in a comprehensive report filed Oct. 13.

"I stand by our position that we disclosed within 24 hours and included name and purpose," Rios said.

Strong Start "disregarded" the law, said the opponent of the early-childhood education proposal.

"Voters would have liked to have known that the CEO of the organization that is going to benefit the most made a $20,000 contribution," Rios said.

Eric Schindler, the head of Child and Family Resources, donated that amount to Strong Start with his wife on Aug. 22. That donation was listed on an update filed Oct. 9, but had not been filed separately at the time of the contribution.

Child and Family Resources has given more than $78,000 to the Prop. 204 campaign effort.

Ratner, the Strong Start treasurer, said Tuesday that city officials "notified us that they have accepted our notifications and that we are in compliance" with the law.

Ratner refused to provide copies of the notifications to, saying, "Out of perhaps an abundance of caution, I'd feel better for now if you got that info from the city when they decide to make it publicly available."

City officials posted SST's paperwork the next day, and provided updates from the other committees.

That after-the-fact notification includes a slightly misstated amount, with SST reporting $21,000 in both payment and debt to Mi Familia Vota. A report filed Oct. 6 reported an August payment of $21,795 and an August 17 debt of $21,795.95 to that group.

That report was updated twice, as it was missing dates and included inaccurate figures. Other filings included numerous corrections of previous errors. "I apologize for my inability to add correctly," Ratner said with one update.

Future of Your Zoo

The Future of Your Zoo campaign has raised more than $180,000, with all but $200 in contributions coming from the Reid Park Zoological Society. That committee filed a 24-hour disclosure of a contribution and expenses in April, but didn't think the new city law applied, said society President Nancy Kluge.

The zoo committee, which faces no organized opposition, considered itself grandfathered from being covered by the latest city ordinance, she said.

Thursday, Kluge said her group had been contacted by the City Clerk's Office and "despite the confusion, we will be filing the reports shortly and agree to file trigger reports moving forward."

Strong Start Tucson organizers were contacted about the missing filings on Tuesday, with Future of Your Zoo and No on Prop. 204 notified on Wednesday, Assistant City Clerk Suzanne Mesich said.

While she said "city staff undertook a review after the Oct. 15 filing deadline," none of the campaigns were informed of the issue until after investigated the issue.

City staff, in fact, asked us to "wait for a few minutes" before questioning the campaigns so that they could contact them first.

Each of the groups will now have to report contributions of $2,500 or more within 24 hours through Election Day, Mesich confirmed. City law requires such reports within 20 days of an election, with the continuing requirement to report spending of $10,000 or more.

Strong Start's missed disclosures

The group has raised more than $330,000 in total, including nearly $80,000 from Child and Family Resources, $20,000 from C&FR CEO Eric Schindler, $20,000 from Catholic Community Services and $30,000 from the Ohio Children's Foundation.

Major contributions that were not properly registered were (rounded to the nearest thousand):

5/18 Child and Family Resources $10k
8/15 United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 99 $16k
8/18 Catholic Community Services $20k
8/22 Eric and Andrea Schindler $20k
8/22 Child and Family Resources $10k
10/17 Ohio Children's Foundation $30k

Major expenses that were not properly disclosed were (rounded to the nearest thousand):

5/2 Strong Point Marketing (debt) $10k
5/5 Strong Point Marketing $10k
7/13 Strong Point Marketing $10k
8/14 Mi Familia Vota $21k
8/14 Mi Familia Vota $21k
8/22 Solidarity Strategies $19k
9/18 Solidarity Strategies $20k
10/10 La Machine $25k

No on Prop. 204's disclosure error

The group opposing establishing a sales tax to fund pre-K education has raised at least $162,000 (with only large donations yet reported, the total is unknown), with major support coming from auto dealer Jim Click, who personally donated $30,000 and contributed $14,500 from his dealership. Other backers include the Tucson New Car Dealers Association ($23,600), a hotel company owned by Humberto Lopez ($25,000), and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council ($25,000).

A notice of a Sept. 29 contribution from Click only indicated that it was "over $10,000," but did not provide the $30,000 total amount. That figure was later provided in a different report, and the disclosure was amended.

Future of Your Zoo missed disclosures

The zoo campaign has raised more than $180,000, almost entirely from the Reid Park Zoological Society.

At least three of those donations should have been disclosed under the city law: a May 17 donation of $50,000, an Aug. 30 contribution of $10,000, and $60,000 on Sept. 8.

Also not disclosed were a $10,000 payment to Arizona Petition Partners on May 3, and another $10,000 payment to that Phoenix company on May 17.

Payments to Strategies 360 for polling and campaign consulting amounted to more than $20,000 by June, but the 24-hour notices were never filed by the group.

Penalties steep, unlikely

City law provides for a penalty of up to three times the amount improperly disclosed by initiative campaign committees, but city staff said they "work toward compliance rather than penalties."

Committees that do not file required notices cannot continue their activities, including receiving contributions and making expenditures.

City election disclosures

Dig into 2017 election finance filings yourself on the city's website.

Tucson campaign finance law

City ordinances require campaigns supporting or opposing initiatives to report receiving or spending $10,000 or more within 24 hours:

Chap. 12, Article XI, Sec. 12-184.   Notification requirements.

(a)   In addition to the requirements relating to election contributions prescribed in section 12-183 of this code, a petition drive political committee shall give notice to the city clerk of any contribution or group of contributions to the committee that is made from a single source less than twenty (20) days before the day of the election if it exceeds two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500).

(b)   In addition to the requirements in section 12-183 of this code, a petition drive political committee shall give notice to the city clerk each time any of the following occurs:

  • (1)   The committee has received contributions totaling ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or more.
  • (2)   The committee has made expenditures totaling ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or more.
  • (3)   The committee has received contributions totaling ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or more from a single source.
  • (4)   The committee has received contributions totaling ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or more from different additional single sources.

(c)   The notices prescribed by this section shall be filed within twenty-four (24) hours, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays. All notices shall include the identification of the contributors, the dates of receipt and the amounts of the contributions or the date, amount, recipient and purpose of the expenditures. Contributions subject to the notification requirements of this section shall be included in the next report filed pursuant to section 12-183> of this code.

(d)   For the purposes of this section, "single source" includes principals of the same partnership, corporation, limited partnership, limited liability company, limited liability partnership or association

(Ord. No. 11457, § 2, 4-19-17)

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