Commentary: Guilty Or Not, Aftab Pureval Owes Voters An Explanation

Sep 26, 2018

We are very happy to not have to decide if Democratic congressional candidate Aftab Pureval is guilty of misusing campaign funds, as has been alleged before the Ohio Elections Commission.

What we are reasonably sure of is this: Pureval, or his campaign manager Sarah Topy or someone else high up in the Pureval organization, showed really poor judgement. Or, they were such amateurs they didn't know any better than to be monkeying around with $30,000 or so from Pureval's clerk of courts campaign account and (allegedly) spending a big chunk of it on his campaign for Congress.

If that, indeed, is what happened – and the Ohio Elections Commission will ultimately decide that – then that dog won't hunt. Aftab Pureval will have some explaining to do.

Here's something else we are reasonably certain of: The TV commercial attacking Pureval over this – paid for by Speaker Paul Ryan's Conservative Leadership Fund Super PAC, to the tune of about $1 million – is ridiculous.

One version of the TV ad – in amateurish, grade school graphics – has the bars of a jail cell closing around a sorrowful-looking photo of Pureval. And the message is utter nonsense – that Pureval could go to jail for his campaign finance indiscretions.

Not going to happen.

The worst that would happen is that Pureval or people in his campaign will be hit with $1,000 fines. And, if the decision comes before the Nov. 6 election, which is not at all certain, they will have to live with the consequences at the voting booths of the First Congressional District.

The Republican incumbent, Steve Chabot, might be giddy over all this hubbub his minions have stirred up around Pureval, but he might want to, as Larry David would say, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The fact is, he has a potential ethical question of his own he has yet to answer.

In August, the Hamilton County Democratic Party filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) saying that Chabot's campaign committees have paid about $170,000 to his son-in-law's web design firm – several times the market rate for that service.

And he's also accused of using photos from the House floor in his blog, which is part of his campaign. Not supposed to do that.

But that FEC complaint could grow a ZZ Top-style beard before it ever sees the light of day in Washington.

The Pureval complaint will be heard by the Ohio Elections Commission before the election. No idea if there will be a decision before the election.

Phil Richter, executive director of the commission, said the six-member board's principle job now is to handle campaign finance complaints.

"The job of the commission is to determine if there is a violation of the statutes,'' Richter said.

The commission, he said, could listen to the evidence and decide there was no violation.

Or, he said, it could find a violation and not impose a fine.

But the commission does have the authority to impose fines – up to $1,000 for every element of the case where the law was broken.

In some "egregious" cases, a fine could be imposed and the case referred to a county prosecutor, who could decide not to prosecute or take it to a grand jury as a misdemeanor or felony charge.

It is extremely rare, Richter said, that the offenses rise to the level of a felony or involve jail time.

Here’s what we know happened with the $30,000 from Pureval's state campaign fund.

In April, he paid $16,400 to GBA Strategies, a Washington, D.C. polling firm. It only makes sense that money was used for a congressional poll. He doesn't have to run for reelection to the clerk of courts office until 2020.

And there was money for out-of-state travel and to pay a photographer for shooting Pureval's campaign kickoff event on Jan. 31. How does paying for a photographer to shoot a congressional campaign kickoff relate to running for re-election as clerk of courts?

The whole thing got even more complex when it came to light that Pureval's campaign manager, Sarah Topy, went to the board of elections in July and asked deputy director Sally Krisel if it would be legal to redact the memo lines from the checks – the $30,000 in checks.

Krisel said it would be legal, as long as the purpose of the expenditure was listed on the campaign finance reports filed with the board of elections. That is absolutely true.

But instead of handing Topy her black pen and telling her to make the redactions, Krisel did it herself. That, Krisel will tell you, was a lapse of good judgement.

And she did not tell anyone until last week when lawyer Brian Shrive asked elections director Sherry Poland to answer a question under oath about whether or not board employees redacted material from legal documents. Poland was about to file an affidavit saying that does not happen at the board when Krisel came forward.

At an emergency meeting of the board the next morning, Krisel admitted her mistake and apologized to the board. Krisel will be disciplined, but she will keep her job – she is a long-time employee and a former elections director. Everyone, Democrat and Republican alike, admires her, personally and professionally.

The only thing Pureval has said about it that we know of is this:

"I didn't know about the redactions and I didn't authorize it."

The commission complaint was filed by Mark Miller of Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST). Miller is represented by Brian Shrive of the Finney Law Firm, which is headed by Christopher Finney, the founder of COAST.

Shrive told WVXU there is a fundamental reason why people should care about this.

"We have campaign finance laws and they need to be taken seriously,'' Shrive said. "The underlying assumption is that ignoring the laws can undermine the integrity of the election."

Former Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke, who is chairman of the board of elections, said that Pureval's campaign had been on the upswing and that "this process has slowed down the roll."

"Aftab needs to respond very clearly to the voters,'' Burke said. "There were mistakes made by Aftab and he needs to correct them."

Back in 1974, Burke was an aide and friend of Cincinnati council member Jerry Springer, who ended up resigning his office after it was learned that he had paid a prostitute with a check.

"I lived for 10 days with all the headlines in the Enquirer and the Post,'' Burke told WVXU. "Jerry went into hiding for about a week. Then, finally, he came out and said, 'I'm going to explain this to people.' "

And he did. Although he resigned from council, he was able to come back in 1975 and win re-election to council.

"This is nowhere near as bad as what Jerry did, but Aftab could learn a lesson by just going out to the public and saying, 'Here's what happened,' '' Burke said. "Clearly, mistakes were made by Aftab. He should get out in front and explain himself. People will listen."

"There are some things Steve Chabot needs to explain too,'' Burke said, referring to the payments to his son-in-law.

But, for now, everyone is talking about Aftab and his $30,000 and the Ohio Elections Commission complaint.  

When I was a kid, I used to hang out at a little shop on Brown Street in Dayton called the House of Magic. It was a place where professional and amateur magicians bought their supplies and could work on their routines. I managed to learn a few simple magic tricks I would use to amaze my friends and family. At least they pretended to be amazed.

They all involved sleight-of-hand.

Sleight-of-hand is all about misdirection of your subject's attention – make him look at your left hand while your right hand is busy doing something seemingly magical.

This is a kind of sleight-of-hand that most politicians and campaign managers learn early on.

Distract the audience's attention from what you are doing by pointing fingers at your opponent.

Been a lot of that going on here lately.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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