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Springfield Race is Over, but the Campaign Finance Refs Still Reviewing the Tape…

UPDATED 1/11/24 11:41AM for additional information: On Thursday, OCPF received copies of checks dated January 10 refunding the excess contributions. Other campaign finance issues also appear to have cleared.

Sarno of Denmark

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.“ (image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & files)

The mayoral race in Springfield may be long over and the victors have taken the oath. That, however, does not mean the work of campaign finance regulators have finished their work. Rather, several issues with Mayor Domenic Sarno’s campaign records had remained outstanding per auditors with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign & Political Finance. Prominent among them are excess donations.

Sarno is not the only city pol to have OCPF’s flag from 2023 still waving in 2024. However, the mayor’s file with OCPF already contains a multitude of letters that spotlight the same issues again and again. Among them are deposit reports—that is, the name of donors—that are completely missing, insufficient detail of expenditure purpose and excess contributions.

Under current law, a candidate for office in Massachusetts can receive no more than $1,000 from the same person in the same year. Corporations cannot give at all while political action committees, other candidate committees, and lobbyists face other restrictions. This contrasts with the feds. Federal law caps donations to candidates per election, but they are indexed to inflation. Federal primaries and generals are each separate elections.

The mayor spent half a million dollars on his reelection, an unprecedented sum in Springfield.

Excess contributions, especially when a donor gives several times per year, but less than the max each time, are not unusual. However, in Sarno’s case they concerned some prominent officials including the like-named son of motor coach magnate Peter A. Picknelly and Glanee Patel, a relative of the owners of TowerSquare. WMP&I previously reported these excess donations.

Various Picknellys gave Sarno $8,000 last cycle counting back to the announcement of his first opponent in 2022. As recently as this week, the mayor has listed the elder Picknelly’s proposal to cram a courthouse into an isthmus of land between I-91 and the river.

OCPF first sent notice of the excess contributions on November 20. A second letter went out December 20. These letters note a third donor who gave too much, Joan Roche. Roche is also the president of Roche Associates, which Sarno’s campaign paid $16,000 for services last year. All three excess donors gave $1,000 over the cap in 2023.

It is possible that the mayor’s campaign committee resolved the issue in January. However, as of this posting, OCPF still marks the issue as unresolved. Neither Sarno’s campaign treasurer nor the campaign itself responded to a request for comment. Subsequent WMP&I’s inquiries, the Sarno campaign began correcting most of the issues identified herein.

According OCPF, if the audit process cannot resolve an issue with a campaign, it gets moved up to the legal department.

“Generally, we consider the details of each situation to determine how to proceed, including the amount of money involved,” an agency spokesperson said.

The same November and December letters to the Sarno campaign also note missing donor employer information, and a missing deposit report. These letters also flagged missing subvendor information and missing expenditure information, but OCPF now marks both matters resolved. The subvendor related to the mayor’s media consultant. The campaign provided an email from David Horgan outlining how he used money from the campaign, namely broadcast advertising spots.

A December 13, 2023 letter requested clarification of expenses and noted several missing deposit reports. The letter notes nearly $18,000 in deposits with no explanation as to their provenance. However, this appears to have cleared pursuant to a previously filed report. The missing expenditure issue also cleared subsequent to the original posting of this story.

Sarno Hurst

Sarno and Hurst in October. (still via WWLP/YouTube)

The mayor’s campaign had multiple months during 2023 that simply lacked any deposit information. A raw number for income was available via his bank, which reports directly to OCPF. However, the name, addresses and occupations of donors remained a black box for weeks, usually until OCPF’s auditors began beating the drum.

Sarno’s main rival in this election last year, former at-large councilor Justin Hurst, was not immune to receipt of OCPF letters. Nearly all the issues the agency flagged pertained to detail for expenditures. However, none appeared to linger long enough to prompt the agencies to write follow-up letters, at least not in 2023.

As of this posting, OCPF still flags excess contributions on Hurst’s file. However, the campaign’s December report shows it has already refunded the largest excess contribution ($1,000). In a text, Hurst said the remaining three excess donations, which collectively total $400, should resolve this month.

None of mayoral aspirants who failed to survive the preliminary had issues at the level Sarno had. The closest in kind, if not in scale, may be therapists David Ciampi. He received multiple letters about missing deposit reports. However, Ciampi’s campaign was almost entirely self-funded and issues easily resolved.

In October former Council President Jesse Lederman received a letter about an excess contribution of $250. A refund went out in a month. State Rep Orlando Ramos, who retains his seat in the legislature and likely candidate for reelection this year, received a letter in November about insufficient expenditure details. More significantly, however, he used Paypal. The agency prohibits peer-to-peer payment systems. This warning aside, the issue resolved once Ramos’ campaign clarified the expenditure purpose.

Most city councilor candidates do not appear to have open issues that OCPF had flagged. Most had at least a few matters that required attention but later resolved. As of posting date, among sitting councilors, only Councilors Sean Curran and Brian Santaniello have outstanding issues OCPF has flagged. Both are requests for more expenditure information.

Among the defeated with open issues were at-large candidates Jose Caraballo and Nicole Coakley, Ward 4 challenger Kareem Kibodya and Ward 6 challenger Shanequa Fryar.