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Court says campaign cash limit is invalidEdit

Former Controller Jonathan Saidel challenged the ordinance. The judge said it failed to define "candidate."

Source: Thomas Fitzgerald, Inquirer Staff Writer

The city's campaign-finance limits cannot be enforced against one potential mayoral aspirant because City Council did not define the word candidate when it wrote the ordinance, a judge has ruled.

Lawyers involved in the case say that the ruling, in favor of former City Controller Jonathan Saidel, could imperil the city's entire attempt to regulate campaign cash if it is cited by other defendants in a pair of lawsuits that seek to enforce the limits.

In addition to Council's omission, "plaintiff has failed to provide any legal support for any proffered definitions of the term candidate or alleged sufficient facts" to trigger the contribution caps, Common Pleas Court Judge Allan J. Tereshko wrote Wednesday in his order dismissing the suit against Saidel.

Tereshko was ruling on a suit brought in April by former City Councilman Michael A. Nutter demanding that four potential candidates return nearly $1 million raised in excess of the city campaign-contribution limits - $2,500 from an individual and $10,000 from a business partnership or political committee.

"This has broad implications," Abbe Fletman, Saidel's lawyer, said yesterday. "You could view this order as effectively striking down the campaign-finance law, at least as far as placing limits on potential candidates" goes.

Several of the six presumed contenders for mayor have evaded the limits by saying that they have not formally announced their candidacies. That is in keeping with the city solicitor's interpretation - that a candidate is anyone who has declares himself one or files nominating petitions.

But Nutter, in his lawsuit, and the watchdog group Committee of Seventy, in an earlier suit against all six potential candidates, argue that the law should be triggered by the broader state statutory definition of candidate, which includes those soliciting contributions to explore running for an office even if they haven't formally said they were.

Fletman had filed a preliminary objection asking that the suit be dismissed against Saidel because of the lack of definition in the ordinance. The city code says words that are not defined in ordinances should be construed according to "common usage," and Fletman cited two state Supreme Court precedents defining the "ordinary usage" of the term candidate to mean one who has publicly announced or filed nomination papers.

"We're glad the court has accepted the common-sense definition of candidate," Fletman said.

In April, Nutter sued potential candidates Saidel, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) and labor leader John J. Dougherty. All had raised some of their cash in excess of the limits.

Businessman Tom Knox, who has given $5 million to his own campaign, was not named in the suit because the ordinance does not apply to self-financed candidates.

Saidel has said that he began observing the limits in all his fund-raising since January, when he left office. Evans, Dougherty and Fattah have taken the approach that the limits do not apply to them before they announce they are running. Evans and Dougherty have further argued that the city does not have constitutional authority to preempt state law, which has no campaign caps.

"This is a very significant development," said Gregory M. Harvey, Fattah's lawyer, speaking of the order. "It looks to me to be decisive on this issue... . The other parties will rely on this order because all are similarly situated."

Neither Nutter nor his lawyer, Susan L. Burke, could be reached for comment yesterday.

The ruling does not involve the Committee of Seventy's lawsuit, though it uses a legal rationale similar to Nutter's in arguing that potential candidates should be required to abide by the limits.

"It doesn't affect us directly," said John Harkins, the lawyer for Seventy. "We will be able to supply the judge with plenty of [legal] authority to rule that the state definition should apply."

He said that the ruling, since it was on a preliminary objection and does not detail the judge's thinking, was not the final word on the issues.

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