Posted: July 8, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Sloppy campaign finance reporting from Christopher A. Coons, the Democratic candidate for New Castle County executive, has his political foes, Democratic and Republican, working themselves into a lather.

No one has pounced yet. Instead, for months now the cloaks have been twirling and the daggers flashing in the back parlors of politics. Unsigned memos have been circulated, strategy plotted, and efforts made to plant stories in the press, leaving no fingerprints to be traced back to the planters.

Everyone has been waiting for everyone else to go first.

Sherry L. Freebery and Richard Korn, candidates along with Coons for the Democratic nomination, and Christopher J. Castagno, the Republican candidate, all have an interest in seeing Coons spattered in this rancid campaign to succeed County Executive Thomas P. Gordon, a two-term Democrat who cannot run again.

With the election colored darkly by federal indictments, ethics and integrity matter, so it would not be good if a candidate were to be pinned with the charge of trying to pull a fast one with campaign finance reporting.

Coons, who is running on the ethics issue himself, finds himself dealing with a flawed year-end finance report for 2000 for his successful campaign for County Council president. By law, all candidates must file accounts of their contributions and expenditures with the state elections commissioner. The reports are available to the public -- and to rival campaigns.

The cover page is a summary statement of the campaign account, listing the beginning balance, the total amount of contributions, expenditures, loans and loan repayments detailed in the report, and the ending balance.

Instead of relying on the campaign treasurer to fill out the cover page, Coons did it himself, and as he acknowledges, he muffed it. He is a lawyer, not an accountant. As such, he should know that a lawyer who represents himself is said to have a fool for a client, and it appears the same goes for a candidate acting as his own treasurer.

"The cover page I did wrong," Coons said.

Coons' most serious error was his treatment of $104,717 he personally loaned to his campaign. He should have considered it as money he had available to spend, adding it to his contributions, but he subtracted it, instead, treating it like a debt and leaving himself with a negative balance of -$93,738.

The campaign did not catch the problem until it came time to file the 2001 report, Coons said. His treasurer recalculated the 2000 ending balance to be in the black at $22,695 and used it for the beginning balance on the 2001 report. It had the effect of making it appear that Coons' campaign finances magically went from being almost $94,000 in the hole to being in the clear. His political foes noticed.

Coons says his campaign filed an amended report for 2000 in March 2002, but Elections Commissioner Frank B. Calio said Thursday afternoon his office had found no record of it.

As Coons heard of the gathering political assault on his bookkeeping, he had the amended report reconstructed late last month. It is dated June 25, but Calio said he has not seen that one, either.

Even the amended version, shown to Delaware Grapevine, does not answer all questions. It shows Coons lending his campaign $5,000 less than originally reported, his explanation being that the campaign checkbook shows the money neither coming in nor going out. It is in balance without it.

"I may have thought I contributed more to my campaign than I did," Coons said.

Coons eventually forgave the campaign loans, but the finance reports he submitted since 2000 do not show it. The loans simply vanish from the pages. Once his amended report is on file, however, it will show the loans being canceled.

If there is anything more to come about Coons' campaign finance records, his political rivals can do it themselves.