Mendelson resists money order donation curbs

December 17, 2012

Behold, one of the questionable money orders delivered to the 2011 Orange campaign. (The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council’s absorbed a good amount of abuse in recent weeks over its failure to pass a campaign finance reform bill before the end of the current council session.

But it’s no surprise that council members haven’t been able to come to terms in the year that a campaign finance reform package has been under serious consideration. Just look at how hard it is to pass one of the smallest, simplest reforms that’s been proposed.

Last week, Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) told her colleagues she’d be proposing a emergency ban on money order campaign donations in excess of $25 — a companion to the city’s longstanding ban on cash donations in excess of that amount.

This is a fix that was much discussed last spring after reporters found tens of thousands of dollars worth of money orders linked to city contractor Jeffrey E. Thompson in various campaign accounts, many of them in the coffers of Vincent B. Orange’s 2011 at-large special election campaign.

Orange, under pressure, released copies of the money orders, which turned out to be in some cases sequential and bore similar handwriting. It was enough that Orange himself deemed the money orders, some of them for $1,000, “suspicious.” Subsequent reform discussions centered around eliminating the blurry distinction between money orders and cash.

But Monday Council Chairman Phil Mendelson resisted Cheh’s proposed ban, calling the $25 threshold “unreasonable.” He repeated an objection raised earlier this year, that some campaign donors are “unbanked” and would essentially be excluded from political giving if writing a check were their only option for giving more than the $25 cash limit. 

“There are … people are relatively poor who write money orders, who have written money orders to my campaign, maybe $50 or $100,” Mendelson said. “My assumption is they don’t have a checking account. I have also been told there are some people who use a money order because one doesn’t have to worry about balancing a checkbook and so forth.”

He further suggested that banning large money orders would do little to dissuade illegal campaign donors, because they’ve already proven themselves willing to break the law against straw donation schemes: “If somebody wants to break the law, the law isn’t going to prevent that. That’s what breaking the law is about.”

But Mendelson’s comments betrayed a flawed understanding of what a money order actually is. He said he considered a money order to be more akin to a check than a cash contribution: “A money order is not the same as a cash contribution,” he said. “My understanding is that it’s possible to go to a bank and find out who purchased a money order. There’s a name on a money order, so it’s distinguishable in those ways from a cash contribution.”

Mostly false. Yes, you can look at a money order and see the name of the buyer on it, if they’ve bothered to fill it in. But many — if not most, if not all — money order sellers do not check to see if the name on a money order matches the buyer’s identity. If you go to a convenience store or post office with a stack of cash, you can walk out with a stack of money orders bearing as many names as you like — which is what appears to have happened with the Orange campaign’s money orders.

With a check, investigators can take the account number on it back to the issuing bank and obtain records about the account’s signatories and depositors. With a money order, determining the buyer’s actual identity would involve tracing the note to a particular location and time, then scouring security camera tapes for clues, if they even exist.

Mendelson said he’s not entirely against the notion of tightening money order contributions, just that “$25 strikes me as low.” While not venturing a specific threshold, he said “something like $100 would be more reasonable, I think.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | December 17, 2012