The state Office of Campaign & Political Finance has ruled that newly-elected school committee member Sarah Lidonni ran afoul of campaign finance laws prior to the May 3 annual town election, but concluded that sanctions were unwarranted because any infractions were unintentional.
According to a decision by Director William Campbell dated June 22, the agency’s review was prompted by a third-party complaint regarding Lidonni’s fundraising activities which alleged that her political committee improperly utilized the Venmo online payment service to raise campaign funds, staged a raffle to raise funds without accurately disclosing the amounts received and used the Ahern School PAC’s Facebook page to promote her candidacy.
Prior to the May 3 election, Lidonni had been serving as president of the middle school parent council, but resigned the post after formally entering the race.
Although the agency’s inquiry supported the complaint, Campbell’s determination noted that any lack of compliance was unintentional, adding that because Lidonni’s campaign committee had undertaken “remedial action,” no sanctions were necessary.
“Because we believe the guidance provided as a result of this review will ensure future compliance, no further action is required and the matter may be closed at this time,” the disposition stated.
A copy of the document, which was designated a matter of public record, was been sent anonymously to The Sun Chronicle.
The campaign finance office further explained that online fundraising is allowable, provided that all donors are identified by name and residential address. In addition, online platforms must certify that any contribution was made from a donor’s personal funds, and they are responsible for payments on a debit or credit card.
Venmo is a mobile payment platform which combines social media with financial transactions to allow account holders to transfer funds to others via a mobile phone app. Owned by PayPal, it was conceived for peer-to-peer transactions typically involving family and friends.
Reached this week, Lidonni said all of her online contributions had been included -- though not specifically identified as such -- in an initial campaign finance report filed with the town clerk’s office on April 23.
Subsequent to that filing, Lidonni said she was contacted by staff from the state campaign finance office about the alleged irregularities, after which she was able to verify the source of all contributions.
“I think the origin of the complaint was to make sure that I was toeing the line,” she said. “This was my first time running for office so I was new to all of this, but I understand it’s important to make sure everything is done right.”
Admitting that Venmo is a “gray area” in terms of campaign fundraising, she said she opted for the online service only because the COVID-19 pandemic made some supporters anxious about more conventional methods.
“There was nothing sinister about it, or anything like that,” she said.
According to campaign finance reports at the town clerk’s office, Lidonni received a total of $2,624 in cash contributions while spending $2,055, leaving her with a balance of $569. The report also listed a $92 in-kind donation for website work.
Because of the remaining balance, Lidonni will be required to submit a supplemental finance report next January, Town Clerk Robert Cutler said.
Cutler said he was aware a complaint had been filed with the political finance office prior to the May 3 election, but added that any financial inquiries are handled at the state level.
“We have no enforcement power” relative to campaign finance matters, Cutler said.
In the May election, Lidonni defeated Salina Chowdhury of South Street in a three-way race for two open seats on the school committee, with incumbent board member Richard Pearson also winning reelection.
It was Chowdhury’s second run for a school board seat. In 2020, she had been narrowly defeated for a lone seat on the board by fellow newcomer Michelle Raymond.