Problems with Kenyatta Johnson's campaign-finance filings

Kenyatta Johnson (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer )

FOR THE FIRST time in a long time, political opponents Kenyatta Johnson and Ori Feibush agree on something - there are some serious problems with Johnson's campaign reports.

In late October, the incumbent 2nd District councilman filed a series of corrections to his 2012 and 2013 campaign-finance filings. The corrections were enormous, showing over $61,000 in previously unreported expenses and nearly $11,000 in new contributions.

Both years include donations directly from Wawa Inc. and real estate firms JDT International and Switzenbaum & Associates. State law forbids direct donations from private corporations.

"Under state law those appear to be illegal contributions," said Tim Dowling, campaign finance specialist at the City Commissioners office. "They may have an issue with the Board of Ethics."

Johnson's campaign denies any illegalities and blames the mistakes on a rogue treasurer.

"Our previous treasurer, who we have since replaced, filed a 2013 report that we discovered was missing data. It's no more complicated than that," said Mark Nevins, Johnson's campaign spokesman. "We corrected the mistakes we found and accounted for the errors . . . we've taken steps to ensure that, in the future, this never happens again."

Dowling said he did "not frequently" see corrections for such large sums. Amended reports typically feature bounced checks and late invoices candidates may encounter after a filing deadline, for small amounts of money.

He said the last time he had seen an amendment this large was back in 2003, when former Mayor John Street accidentally submitted his reports in triplicate, unintentionally tripling his stated expenses and contributions. He said the last time he recalled a candidate amending for multiple years worth of reports was in 2007.

" State Rep. John Perzel had to amend back five years," said Dowling. "But that's before he got indicted and went to jail."

If blaming the treasurer sounds familiar, it's because Johnson's camp did so after a blogger noticed that the councilman's signatures on some of his campaign reports didn't match and, in one case, misspelled the councilman's name.

Nevins blamed those errors on the same treasurer, Camari Ellis, a financial consultant with Jenkintown-based Ascension Wealth Management.

Strangely, Ellis also appears to have been paid to prepare the amended reports that "corrected" the hundreds of errors he allegedly made in the first place. And, even more strangely, more than $6,000 worth of newly reported expenses went to Ellis himself.

Johnson's opponent, developer Ori Feibush, seized on the amended filings.

"I mean, how did you miss regular payments to yourself when you're the treasurer?" he asked.

David Thornburgh of the government watchdog group Committee of Seventy, agreed that whether or not Johnson was merely the unsuspecting victim of a rogue treasurer was irrelevant.

"It seems like a distraction to suggest these errors were the fault of someone on staff," he said. "The buck stops with the candidate and the candidate has to take responsibility for their documents."