Over 2010 and 2011, Mobile Mayor Sam Jones spent more than $70,000 from his personal campaign fund, according to disclosure forms, including $8,000 for electricity, $9,600 in visits to Samâ€™s Wholesale Club and more than $2,000 to hardware stores, to name a few.
Though he said he could not speak specifically about the various purchases made with campaign funds during a non-election period, Jones said the expenses were part of running a campaign headquarters he says has been in existence for the past 15 years. Jones keeps a small office inside a building he owns at 2209 Costarides St. The building also houses a beauty salon. Jones says none of the money being used to support his campaign headquarters is going to support the building as a whole because utilities for his office are on a separate meter.
State ethics laws forbid the use of campaign funds for a candidateâ€™s personal financial benefit.
Lagniappe examined Jonesâ€™ campaign funds as part of a continuing look at political monies surrounding the mayor and their reporting or lack thereof. Late last year Lagniappe reported on Alabama Citizens for the Environment (ACEPAC), a political action committee run by City Attorney Larry Wettermark that is funded almost completely by $155,000 shifted from Jonesâ€™ personal campaign fund in 2010. At the time ACEPAC appeared not to be following state law regarding frequency of reporting. Since our report, ACEPAC has begun filing weekly, as the law requires. Jonesâ€™ campaign, despite almost weekly expenses, also continues to only file an annual report. The campaign law that went into effect last year requires active campaigns to report monthly, if not weekly.
Since the beginning of 2010, Jones has spent and transferred more than $225,000 from his personal campaign fund, an unusual move in light of his stated intent to run again for office in 2013. In comparing other local politicians who will run in 2013, Lagniappe could find no others with the kind of large, regular expenses incurred by Jonesâ€™ campaign. Most City Council members, for instance, have spent only a few hundred dollars a year over that time, most for charitable contributions.
Councilman Fred Richardson, for example, spent only $125 in 2010 and William Carroll reported no expenditures in 2011. Council President Reggie Copeland reported expenditures of $2,030 in 2010, most of which were donations to other campaigns or charitable gifts. County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood reported only $2,218 in expenses for 2011.
"We maintain a campaign headquarters,â€ť Jones said when asked about some of the expenses, including an average of $338 a month in electricity purchased with campaign funds. "Itâ€™s on Costarides. Weâ€™ve had it for the last 15 years.â€ť
Jones went on to explain, "Itâ€™s three buildings. One is rented out. The campaign doesnâ€™t pay anything. I actually donate the rent to the campaign year round. Thereâ€™s a lady who rents part of the building. Itâ€™s three different utilities.â€ť
The sole building at the Costarides Street address is rented out to Epiphany Salon. Lagniappe visited the building and was shown Jonesâ€™ headquarters, which was a small glassed-in office area in the center of the building. No one was there at the time of the visit and the lights were off, so no campaign personnel were on hand to answer questions.
State law does not seem to prohibit politicians from keeping a campaign headquarters even in times when there is no active campaign. It also is a bit grey in regards to the way excess funds may be spent, limiting it to "necessary and ordinary expenditures of the campaign,â€ť as well as helping in the performance of the officeholderâ€™s duties, donations to the state general fund and inaugural transition expenses.
The law more clearly delineates what may not be purchased with campaign funds, including "household supplies, personal clothing, tuition payments, mortgage, rent, or utility payments for a personal residence.â€ť It also says "personal and legislative living expenses shall not include expenses for food, beverages, travel, or communications incurred by the legislator in the performance of the office held.â€ť
Janice McDonald, head of elections for the Alabama Secretary of Stateâ€™s office, said such expenses during a non-election period are "unusual,â€ť but neither her office nor the Attorney Generalâ€™s Office would offer guidance as to whether there is a legal issue regarding the way Jonesâ€™ campaign is spending money. The AGâ€™s Office refused any type of comment and will only look at matters if there is a written complaint.
Among the other expenses listed by Jonesâ€™ campaign were more than $9,700 in visits to Samâ€™s Wholesale store, a "big boxâ€ť retailer that sells everything from food to tires. The trips to Samâ€™s were frequent â€” 34 over the 24-month period â€” and averaged $404 a month.
Jones said he couldnâ€™t remember what the Samâ€™s purchases were about and would have to look at his records.
Other expenses tallied were: $3,261 to Waste Management, $2,251 in hardware store purchases, $3,596 to Micro-Comm Telecommunications, $1,036 to AT&T Mobility and $3,691 to State Farm Insurance. Jones also paid $8,850 to Barbara Wolfe and another $8,500 to Charlie Greene during the two-year period. What either does for the campaign is not known, but Greene lists 1406 Springhill Ave. as his home address, which is a house owned by Jones. Greene also has received payments from ACEPAC and MCP over the past couple of years, usually listed under "administrativeâ€ť or "transportation.â€ť Lagniappe was unable to find contact information for Greene, but a city official who claimed to be familiar with him said Greene has frequently helped as a "street organizerâ€ť for Jonesâ€™ campaigns and also does maintenance work on his many rental properties.
Attempts to set up a formal interview with the mayor for this story failed due to a lack of response from Jones, but Lagniappe was able to ask him a few questions before the City Council meeting April 24. Jones answered a couple of questions before launching into a tirade against Lagniappe, making accusations of falsification of new stories and manipulation of information.
"Iâ€™m through talking. I wanted to let you know it makes no sense for us to give you anything. Why donâ€™t you just make it up like you do? Shit, you donâ€™t have no news. You make up shit all the time,â€ť Jones said before walking away.
Lagniappe also tried to question Jones about a $2,500 payment made directly to him personally on Sept. 20, 2010, according to campaign records supplied by Mobile Campaign PAC. MCP, which is run by Riley Boykin Smith, former commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources under Gov. Don Siegelman. Along with ACEPAC, MCP was one Lagniappe reported on late last year as having not been following state reporting law. MCP had never filed any type of financial documents, a situation that was confirmed by the Secretary of Stateâ€™s Office.
MCP did finally file financial disclosure forms this year, listing a $2,500 payment to Jones for administrative work among. The disclosure also reported receiving two contributions totaling $2,500 on Oct. 21, 2010, from ACEPAC â€” a $1,500 contribution and another for $1,000.
ACEPAC on its earlier financial reports listed the $1,500 payment, but listed the only other expenditure for Oct. 21, 2010, as a $1,000 donation to Ron Sparks campaign. Lagniappe has been unable to find that listing among Sparksâ€™ campaign disclosures.
Wettermark, who heads up ACEPAC, insists there was not a $2,500 payment to MCP, but just the $1,500 originally noted. He provided a cancelled checks from the Sparks Campaign and MCP, verifying ACEPACâ€™s accounting of the donations.
"That is an issue for them to correct. My records are correct and corroborated by the bank statements,â€ť he wrote in an email.
Numerous calls to Riley Smith were not returned. Jones said his recollection of the $2,500 payment from MCP was that it was on behalf of the Sparks campaign for office space Jones rented them. He did not say where the space was. Sparks, when contacted, said that sounds correct, but he could not be sure as he had numerous offices operating around the state during his gubernatorial campaign.