ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren has been indicted on two felony campaign finance charges, Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley announced Friday.
The first charge is for first-degree scheme to defraud; the second is an election law offense for illegally coordinating activities and expenditures.
The grand jury indictment is connected to Warren’s 2017 mayoral re-election campaign. Warren has adamantly refused any wrongdoing in the matter.
Warren will be arraigned at 4 p.m. Oct. 5 in front of Cayuga County Judge Thomas Leone. She did not provide immediate comment Friday.
If convicted of the felony charges, Warren would be removed from office under state law. The maximum sentence would be 16 months to four years in prison. While Warren would be unlikely to be incarcerated, her pension could be forfeited if the matter is determined to be a crime related to public office, and she also could lose her law license.
The announcement of criminal charges is not a conviction but adds another major crisis for the already embattled mayor. Her term ends next year.
Warren has faced increasing questions in the last month about her honesty with her claims that she was not informed by her staff until August of all of the facts surrounding the death of Daniel Prude, who was asphyxiated by police as he was restrained.
Campaign finance regulations are, however, a very different matter than the alleged homicide of an unarmed citizen, and County Legislator Rachel Barnhart has said she worries that the public will be slow to digest the occasionally arcane and dry topic and criminal allegations.
Barnhart raised the possible violations in her unsuccessful 2017 mayoral race against Warren. She and another Democratic primary challenger, former Police Chief James Sheppard, filed complaints with the state Board of Elections.
“This is very sad and will plunge our city into further crisis,” Barnhart said. “We have to understand, however, why this is happening.
“Campaign finance laws exist to protect our elections and make sure there is transparency. The magnitude of these violations is nothing short of cheating.”
Also indicted Friday were Warren’s campaign treasurer, Albert Jones Jr., and Rosalind Brooks-Harris, the treasurer of the political action committee Warren for a Strong Rochester. Brooks-Harris is also the city’s finance director.
At a recent news conference Warren called the campaign finance allegations a “political witch hunt.” Her attorney, Joseph Damelio, has said the length between the time of the Barnhart-Sheppard allegations and the recent investigation that led to the indictments shows the flimsiness of the criminal case.
Warren and her campaign aides are accused of illegally using the political action committee, or PAC, to bolster campaign finances.
If a PAC gives money to a candidate for office, it faces the same state-imposed restrictions as any other donor – a limit of $8,557 in 2017. But Warren’s PAC exceeded the limits and illegally bolstered her campaign, prosecutors allege.
Doorley would not say how much money was involved in the alleged fraud but said the sum is “substantial,” in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Warren has maintained that transfers were an unintentional error, a claim that would likely be the foundation of her criminal defense. Doorley responded on Friday: “The indictment alleges otherwise, and that’s what we will be handling in the courtroom.”
Prosecutors will need to show, instead, that the PAC was knowingly used illegally, and that Warren, Jones, and Brooks-Harris purposefully committed fraud with their handling of campaign funds.
The length of the investigation could be explained in part because it has, at times, been a collaborative effort with the District Attorney’s Office and the state Board of Elections.
The joint investigation was delayed not only by the coronavirus pandemic but also by a decision in 2018 about the Board of Elections’ investigative powers.