Volume 75, Number 42 | March 8 -14 2006


Lopez learned hard way that finance rules are for real

The recent campaign finance problems of Margarita Lopez were an unfortunate coda to her eight years as a city councilmember. After an audit of Lopez’s finances from her 2001 campaign, a little over four years later, the Campaign Finance Board last month decided that her campaign had breached its certification, meaning all the public matching funds allocated to her ’01 campaign — about $139,000 — had to be returned. In addition, for making impermissible post-election payments to campaign workers and individuals as well as a post-election payment relating to her own building and other violations, she was fined $31,000.

The total amount Lopez had to pay the Campaign Finance Board, $170,000, wasn’t a record. But the fact that only six candidates have breached certification in the C.F.B.’s nearly 20 years of existence — and that Lopez is among this group — is not trifling. This is not a shortlist that any politician wants to be on.

Public funds are awarded by the finance board on a 4-to-1 match for funds the candidates raise themselves. After elections, any leftover money is supposed to be returned to the city — not disbursed as bonuses.

It seems what happened is Lopez’s ’01 campaign had extra money on hand after the election and decided to dole it out to workers and supporters who had helped Lopez in that campaign and even to some who had only helped on previous campaigns.

Most important, of course, Lopez was not found guilty of fraud by the C.F.B., which surely would have been a major blot on her record.

Campaign finance law is arcane and its uses or abuses fly under the public’s radar. But there are clear rules for when politicians get taxpayers’ money for elections. When the city is giving out tens of thousands of dollars in funds, it has to keep a careful tab. Public money brings with it public accountability.

Of course, Lopez’s misstep will never erase all the good things she did for the community in her eight years in office. The effort to save the old P.S. 64 from development into a megadorm, for example, never would have had a prayer without her. That this old school building on E. Ninth St. now has a chance to be preserved and restored as a real community and cultural center will forever be part of her legacy. There’s lots more Lopez has done that deserves all of our praise, from her work on affordable housing and H.I.V./AIDS to mental health issues, just to name a few. Her roots as an activist are deep. Without question, the community still needs her passion and commitment.

We know Lopez didn’t mean any harm — but it still doesn’t make what happened right. As it stands, she had to mortgage her country house to pay off loans she needed to pay the finance board.

Knowing Lopez, however, we have a hunch that she might redeem herself — and that this whole mess will eventually be forgotten. We’ll see.

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