Elections (Archived)

Board of Ethics dissolves PAC linked to former Philly DA candidate

Former Democratic candidate for Philadelphia DA Tariq El-Shabazz

Former Democratic candidate for Philadelphia DA Tariq El-Shabazz

A political action committee linked to former Philly DA candidate Tariq El-Shabazz was fined $4,000 and will have to disincorporate as part of a Philadelphia Board of Ethics settlement. 

It is the first such agreement reached by the board to seek the dissolution of a rogue PAC.

The settlement, released on Thursday, found Trustwave PAC had violated multiple campaign finance laws during the 2017 primary by unlawfully coordinating with El-Shabazz’s campaign. Trustwave had printed and distributed sample ballots at polling places in support of El-Shabazz and other candidates but was effectively controlled by El-Shabazz’s own campaign staff.

Philadelphia’s campaign finance laws effectively bar coordination between political campaigns and PACs, regarding that activity as a type of in-kind contribution subject to campaign contribution limits.

A Board of Ethics investigation, launched in May, found that political operative Ismail Shahid had served as chair of Trustwave while also performing work as an unpaid advisor to the Shabazz campaign. The settlement states that at times, Shahid solicited donations on behalf of both Trustwave and the campaign itself. 

Although Shahid eventually stepped down as chair of Trustwave, he continued to direct its activities throughout the primary.

Additionally, the Board of Ethics outlined a circular financial arrangement between the PAC and another El-Shabazz campaign staffer. Trustwave funneled money for “consulting services” into a firm called Countrywide Solutions, helmed by Steven Vaughn. Vaughn also held a “leadership position” in El-Shabazz’s campaign, according to the Board of Ethics.

The city’s campaign finance laws include an exemption for money spent by political committees for sample ballot distribution, so long as candidates pay a “usual and normal” charge for those services. While Trustwave raked in some $160,000 from other campaigns as a fee to appear on its sample ballots, it offered these services to El-Shabazz’s campaign for a greatly reduced price – $5,000, or just 5 percent of the total production cost.

The settlement agreement concludes that because of the entanglement of the PAC and El-Shabazz’s campaign staff, virtually all of Trustwave’s activities qualify as undisclosed in-kind contributions that exceed the legal limit.

Trustwave’s former officers – Shahid, Kristen Stoner and Derrick Susswell – agreed to disband the PAC as of January 2018 as part of the settlement. The Board of Ethics is limited in the monetary penalties it can impose; this is the first time the board has sought to dissolve an entity as part of such an agreement. 

Finally, both Susswell and Shahid agreed to notify the Board of Ethics of their involvement in any future political committees.