Providence councilman’s campaign finances shrouded in secrecy

City Council Majority Leader Kevin Jackson stands in between Mayor Jorge Elorza and Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI)

UPDATE: Councilman Jackson filed his campaign reports on Feb. 26.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Faced with a serious campaign challenge in the fall of 2014, Providence City Councilman Kevin Jackson did what most politicians do when they have a credible opponent: he held a fundraiser.

The event took place on Oct. 21, 2014, at Hope Street Pizza, the popular restaurant in the heart of the East Side ward that Jackson, a Democrat, has represented for the last two decades. Surrounded by dozens of supporters, including several current and former councilors, Jackson drew cheers as he made his case to be sent back to City Hall.

It paid off. Two weeks later, Jackson narrowly defeated write-in candidate Marcus Mitchell to hold on to his Ward 3 seat. Jackson’s council colleagues soon elected him majority leader, making him one of the most powerful politicians in Rhode Island’s capital city.

But 16 months after Jackson’s fundraiser, it remains unclear who donated to the councilman and what he spent the money on. The reason: Jackson has failed to file 12 consecutive quarterly campaign finance reports with the R.I. Board of Elections over the last two-and-a-half years.

Late Wednesday, after learning that WPRI.com was preparing to publish this report, Jackson said he plans to file all of his overdue reports by the end of the week. He acknowledged that he has not “lived up to my responsibility” and said he plans to hire an accountant so that “it never happens again.”

“I’m getting to it basically because I finally found the time to put things together,” Jackson told WPRI.com. “When people see it, there will be no earth-shattering things that come out of it.”

Councilman didn’t report raising, spending thousands of dollars

Jackson isn’t alone in failing to file timely reports on his campaign cash.

At least 274 candidates, parties or political action committees (PACs) owed the state more than $2.3 million in late filing fees as of June 2015, according to a list published by the board. As of Tuesday, Jackson owed $30,146, according to Richard Thornton, the board’s director of campaign finance. Jackson colleague, Council President Luis Aponte, owes the board about $48,000.

“State law requires that all candidates file campaign finance reports, which informs the public of who is influencing elections,” Thornton told WPRI.com. “And candidates who do not file reports or file false reports are concealing information from the public in violation of the laws of the state of Rhode Island.”

But Jackson’s violations are particularly egregious because a trail of evidence shows he raised and spent thousands of dollars between July 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2015, the period for which he had yet to file any campaign reports as of Wednesday.

During that span, at least 18 PACs or individuals reported contributing $4,855 to Jackson, according to a WPRI.com review of their own filings with the Board of Elections. At least one city lobbyist also reported contributing $100 to Jackson on June 27, 2014, according to a mandatory disclosure filed with the city of Providence. Jackson has never disclosed any of those donations.

Councilman Jackson's full-page ad that appeared in East Side Monthly.
Councilman Jackson’s full-page ad that appeared in East Side Monthly.

It’s unknown how much more than that Jackson has raised, because individuals who aren’t running for office aren’t required to report when they’ve made a campaign contribution. For all the supporters who attended Jackson’s fundraiser at Hope Street Pizza in 2014, the only contribution that has been disclosed publicly was from then-mayoral candidate Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, who donated $500. (Jackson was a co-chair of Cianci’s campaign.)

Jackson has also made unreported campaign expenditures over the time span. He purchased a full-page paid advertisement in the November 2014 edition of East Side Monthly, published days before the election. In it Jackson pledged to fight for economic development, a living wage for residents, enforcement of the First Source ordinance and improvements in Providence’s schools. The ad cost about $1,500, according to a rate card provided by Providence Media, which owns the magazine.

A flyer that appeared throughout Ward 3 shortly before the election touted Jackson as the “true progressive” in the race while criticizing Mitchell, Jackson’s opponent, for having previously worked for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican. Written in small print at the bottom of the flyer:  “Paid for by Friends of Kevin Jackson,” the official name of his campaign account.

And Jackson does have plenty of friends.

Now in his 21st year on the City Council, Jackson is the longest-serving member of Providence’s legislative body. He is known as one of the council’s most vocal supporters of the city’s schools and youth sports programs. A track coach at Rhode Island College, he started the Providence Cobras youth track-and-field team in 1978.

At a council meeting earlier last month, a group of councilors co-sponsored a resolution calling for the city to name the athletic center at the Providence Career and Technical Academy (PCTA) after Jackson. Ward 11 Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris, whose neighborhood includes PCTA, described Jackson as someone “who cares about children, a person who invests their time in making sure young people have opportunities.”

But Jackson’s decision to endorse Cianci in 2014 was widely condemned on the East Side, prompting a group of his constituents to back Mitchell’s write-in bid. Jackson, whose base is in the low-income Mount Hope neighborhood, was further hurt politically when Ward 3 added a tiny pocket of affluent streets, including Laurel Avenue, Hazard Avenue and Savoy Street, during redistricting before the last election.

In addition to condemning Jackson’s support for Cianci, Mitchell’s supporters targeted the councilman’s history of failing to file campaign finance reports as another key issue in the race. In February 2014, Jackson had entered into a $10,000 settlement agreement with the Board of Elections for his previous failure to file campaign finance reports between 2010 and 2013.

In the end, Jackson survived the race. After never facing a difficult test in his previous four re-election campaigns (1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010), Jackson defeated Mitchell by 48 votes following a recount.

Within weeks, Jackson had secured the necessary seven votes from his colleagues on the all-Democratic City Council to become their majority leader, the No. 2 job on the panel.

Attorney general: investigation is ongoing

Still, the councilman’s failure to file campaign finance reports has continued to haunt him.

The Rhode Island attorney general’s office has repeatedly said there is “an active and ongoing investigation” into Jackson, stemming from the Board of Elections’ 2013 vote to refer Jackson to law enforcement after they discovered evidence that he may have violated campaign finance law. (Jackson’s settlement with the board simply addressed outstanding fines.)

In that case, Jackson’s campaign finance reports showed he spent and received no money between 2010 and 2013, even though other political candidates or PACs reported contributing $4,905 to Jackson during that span, according to Thornton, from the Board of Elections.

To date, no action has been taken. Jackson told WPRI.com he has never been contacted by the attorney general’s office, which has faced criticism for moving slowly on the case.

John Marion, the executive director of good government group Common Cause Rhode Island, called it “astonishing” that Jackson has not been charged with violating the state’s campaign finance law.

“A core principle of our campaign finance system is timely transparency,” Marion said. “Councilman Jackson has consistently violated that core principle despite public pressure and the best efforts of the state Board of Elections to enforce the law. The losers in this case are the citizens of Providence who do not know whether those seeking to influence public policy are also secretly funding Jackson’s campaign.”

When he does file his past-due campaign reports this week, Jackson said he’ll report that he loaned himself about $4,000 to pay for the campaign advertisement in East Side Monthly as well as signs and handouts.

Jackson said he’ll report raising between $5,000 and $8,000 over the last two-and-a-half years. In addition to the Hope Street Pizza fundraiser, he said he has held two other fundraisers during that period, including a recent luncheon at a downtown restaurant.

He said he has apologized to “myself and my family for putting them in this situation,” but suggested he thinks the “people who have supported me will continue to support me.” He said he “absolutely” plans to run for re-election in 2018. (If re-elected then, he will be barred by term limits from running again in 2022.)

“I don’t just talk about what I do in [City Hall], Jackson said. “I live it every day. And if anyone challenges me on that, they don’t know Kevin Jackson.”

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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