COMMENTARY: While volunteering on Martin Jeffrey’s primary campaign for House of Delegates this spring, I began to uncover disconcerting information regarding Delegate Onzlee Ware’s campaign finance records. According to State Board of Elections (SBE), Ware’s campaign reimbursed Ware a staggering $30,000 plus dollars in the last few years, without explanation and usually in large round numbers. Just since 2007 there were over 100 instances in which Ware’s campaign paid expenditures and indicated addresses of payees that were either erroneous or incomplete. Looking further, Ware used campaign funds for seemingly personal use, purchasing symphony tickets, paying for yard work , paying gym dues and purchasing a US passport (amongst other items). I noted that Ware had used campaign funds to pay a filing fee to the IRS for the apparent formation of his nonprofit Juneteenth Foundation (such a use of funds is a colossal federal no-no). To top that, his campaign subsequently took an $800 political donation from the Juneteenth Foundation (an even bigger federal no-no, says the IRS). There’s more to discuss regarding nondisclosure and improper filings but I digress.
The SBE is obligated under Virginia Code not only to review the finance reports submitted by candidates to but it is also the ‘duty’ of the SBE to ‘report any violation’ of the provisions of the Code to the appropriate authority. As startled as I was at the breathtaking scope of the violations I had found, I was even more startled to find that the SBE had been asleep at the wheel for years, failing to review reports and neglecting to see that these reports were corrected.
But back to the primary for a moment: The Jeffrey campaign requested access to the filing documents and petitions of the Ware campaign, thoughts being that Ware’s candidacy documents would be in similar disarray. Improperly filed petitions would keep a candidate off the ballot. Jeffrey was denied a thorough review of these documents, as Democratic leadership either sat idly by or actively participated in blocking access to the papers, which should have by rights been handed over for inspection. Having no luck with the Party, the Jeffrey campaign filed a complaint, asking our Commonwealth’s Attorney Don Caldwell to sort the mess out. But after Caldwell made biased remarks to the press about the claim, the Jeffrey campaign asked Caldwell to step aside, given his conflicts of interest: Caldwell had publicly endorsed and given campaign contributions to his longtime friend Ware.
Surely Caldwell would recuse himself! Surely someone unbiased would count the signatures on the petitions, matching them to a voter registry! Surely the review would include input from the Jeffrey campaign, which had indicated in the complaint that it had credible testimony to give! Instead, Caldwell put his personal and political interests above the interests of the public’s right to a fair and transparent election process: his investigation consisted mainly of asking if the process had been conducted according to law and taking the words of those who said that it had. No independent review, not even a phone call to Jeffrey regarding the extent of the claim. I remain convinced that Ware was improperly certified as a candidate. If there was nothing amiss in Delegate Ware’s paperwork, Jeffrey would have long ago been granted access to the documents.
Meanwhile, I submitted a complaint to the SBE, asking it to look at the full spectrum of wrongdoing in Ware’s campaign finances. The State Board wrote to Ware, calling some of his filings ‘suspicious’. Ware, who must have been rightly concerned, sought help from big legal guns from the DC area. Months passed and the SBE issued conflicting statements, promises of reform. Growing weary, I filed a nearly identical citizen’s complaint regarding Ware’s campaign finances to the proper authority with several hundred signatures attached. The proper authority who investigates election law wrongdoing is also our Commonwealth’s Attorney. The SBE, deflecting attention from its years-long lack of competence, dismissed the matter this week. Caldwell likely won’t have the ethical fortitude to hand over the complaint to an unbiased prosecutor for review. As for Ware, it remains to be seen whether he has learned anything from this matter. Rather than play the victim as he does so well, I would rather our Delegate become a representative that our region can be proud of. I won’t hold my breath, though. The real questions are: “When will Roanoke wake up to the realities of weak and unethical leadership in its midst and demand better? When will the public demand reform and transparency in its election and campaign finance laws”?
Submitted by Mark Powell, Member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee
Posted By Valerie Garner
Categories: State Politics
Tags: Elections, Onzlee_Ware, party_politics