This story first appeared in The Investigator, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA featuring the best investigative and accountability journalism from across Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.
A sellout crowd of 20,033 packed the Wells Fargo Center Jan. 4, 2023, to see the Philadelphia 76ers face the Indiana Pacers.
Playing without star forward Joel Embiid, James Harden dropped 26 points and led the team to a dramatic overtime victory.
Watching the game courtside from tipoff to final buzzer was then Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro, sitting next to a longtime campaign donor and co-chair of his inaugural committee.
Shapiro’s attendance raised an unexpected question: When is a gift to a public official not a gift?
Manuel Bonder, a spokesperson for Shapiro’s transition who now works for the administration, told Spotlight PA the outing was a “political meeting.” He didn’t expand on that or say who paid for the tickets, which conservatively cost $3,000 a pop.
But Bonder did say related expenses will be reported as an in-kind campaign contribution, which under state law is a donation of goods or services rather than money. Commonly seen in-kind contributions range from office supplies to advertisements to food for a fundraiser.
Political veterans and campaign finance experts called the classification unusual. Free tickets to sports games, galas, and other events are more often than not disclosed on annual statements of financial interest, which public officials and others are required to file annually.
Those forms require a public official to describe the gift, and disclose details about who gave it and how much it was worth. Politicians have to disclose the amount of an in-kind contribution on a campaign finance report, but the description of what goods or services it bought usually lacks specifics.
The tickets put on full display the muddy interplay of Pennsylvania’s lax campaign finance and government ethics laws, which are largely self-policed and enable top donors to access lawmakers.
“Our elected officials are supposed to be public servants, but when we see them spending time in luxury settings with rich campaign donors, it destroys trust between voters and what is supposed to be a government of, by, and for the people,” Michael Pollack, executive director of the good-government group March on Harrisburg, told Spotlight PA.
Shapiro’s companion that evening was Philadelphia lawyer Darren Check, two sources told Spotlight PA. Check did not reply to a request for comment.
For Shapiro’s gubernatorial run, Check donated nearly $70,000 between May 2021 and December 2022. Of that, $34,000 were in-kind contributions, all reported simply as “travel” on Shapiro’s campaign finance reports.
Check’s law firm, Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check, made an additional $43,000 in in-kind contributions for travel.
Two campaign operatives from both major parties called the choice to call the tickets a campaign contribution unusual. A third campaign operative was less surprised but added that the confusion was warranted.
The operatives spoke on condition of anonymity to give professional opinions candidly.
“Pennsylvania’s campaign finance laws are pretty phenomenal” for fundraising because of how loose they are, a Republican operative said. “It’s more or less the wild west.”
Some who spoke to Spotlight PA questioned why the tickets weren’t considered a gift. Elected officials are allowed to accept essentially anything valuable from anyone, as long as they report it on an annual ethics filing.
Shapiro has disclosed sports tickets in those filings in three separate instances (which also happen to be the only things he’s reported since 2011.) Two of them were for the Sixers ($870 in 2014 and $2,319 in 2016).
But because Check does not have business before state government that the governor can influence, the tickets weren’t a gift, argued Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia attorney who often works for Democratic candidates, including Shapiro.
Neither Check or his firm is registered to lobby, according to state records, nor are they clients of a lobbying firm seeking to influence state government behavior. The firm also does not have any contracts with the state, according to a public database.
Ultimately, oversight over what’s a campaign contribution and what’s a gift is largely absent. The Department of State said it uses a “complaint-driven policy” and doesn’t proactively look at in-kind donations.
In an email, Bonder said that Shapiro “has consistently put people before the powerful and always operated under the highest standards of ethical public service as he meets people where they are and promotes all that is great about Pennsylvania.”
But to Pollack of March on Harrisburg, the meeting showed how those with money can readily get facetime with politicians.
“We don’t want public officials who trap themselves in echo chambers of the rich,” he said.
WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.