ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren has been indicted by a grand jury for campaign finance violations, Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley announced Friday.
The grand jury’s indictment follows a years long investigation into the mayor’s 2017 re-election campaign. The district attorney said the mayor is facing two class E felonies, including scheme to defraud in the first degree, and violation of election law 14-126(6).
The district attorney said a conviction of a non-violent class E felony could result in a variety of sentences. She said a maximum sentence would be one to four years in state prison, but there could also be probation, split sentences, or restitution in this case.
Doorley said Mayor Warren, along with two others — Albert Jones Jr. and Rosiland Brooks-Harris — are scheduled to be arraigned Monday in front of a Cayuga County Court Judge. Jones Jr. and Brooks-Harris face the came charges as Warren. Brooks-Harris is currently the City of Rochester Finance Director.
“This is an indictment, not a conviction — these are simply allegations of violations of the law,” Doorley said.
District attorney’s full press conference
The district attorney said the legal process in this case could be a long one.
“This could be a long process and we anticipate that there could be challenges along the way so I don’t think this will be anything resolved quickly,” Doorley said.
The district attorney said that the mayor has not yet been arrested, but that she will be processed. Doorley said arrangements for processing were already underway. She said she wasn’t sure exactly when it would happen, but said she believed it would take place at central booking of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
Officials offered little for specifics due to the nature of an ongoing investigation, but said the indictment was focused on the raising of hundreds of thousands of dollars between November 2013 and November 2017 — during the mayor’s first term in office.
“This is not political,” Doorley said. “I am the chief law enforcement official in Monroe County. I was presented the facts, we handled it as we would any other case, and I am simply doing my job.”
The district attorney said the mayor is still the mayor, but a conviction could jeopardize her law license.
“Lovely Warren is still the mayor of the City of Rochester — mayoral business needs to continue and I don’t want to dispute that,” Doorley said.
Mayor Warren has been the focus of a New York State Board of Elections investigation into allegations of financial interactions between a political action committee that supported Warren’s re-election bid for mayor and her campaign committee.
According to 2017 expenditures of Warren’s political action committee, Warren for a Stronger Rochester PAC, $30,000 was transferred from the PAC to her committee, Friends of Lovely Warren.
New York State has strict rules forbidding PACs and committees from coordinating. Warren’s campaign claims the money was earmarked for Friends of Lovely Warren, but was accidentally placed in the PAC account through a “PayPal error,” or a clerical mistake.
“I think the indictment alleges that this was not a mistake,” Doorley said.
Officials say the basis of this allegation is that the PAC was used to circumvent a limit set on campaign donations — the limit in 2017 was set at $8,557.
“We all want our elections to be run fair and these are laws on the books to allow and ensure that people who are entering political office follow the rules so that there is equal access to everyone,” Doorley said. “There are certain rules about coordinating campaign funds. These are important. We all want fair campaigns. This is allegedly a scheme to defraud.”
All of this was happening in a contested mayoral primary when Warren was running for re-election against Rachel Barnhart and James Sheppard.
Warren’s attorney Joe Damelio held a press conference Friday where he declared the mayor is innocent. Damelio said the mayor didn’t know she violated the law, he said she’s anxious to get this process started so she can go to trial.
Damelio says clerical mistakes, or honest mistakes, can happen. He says nobody got ripped in this case, and nobody had any money taken out of their pockets.
Damelio says intent will need to be proven for the accusations to stand. He says there needs to be evidence that shows criminal intent to violate the penal and election laws. He says his team doesn’t see that intent.
“No one’s getting paid here,” Damelio said. “These are volunteers and they do the best job that they can. The mayor’s office has been working with the board of elections for approximately three years now, looking for some answers and some guidance for them as far as what to do and how to do that. They’ve been in contact with the Board of Elections three years ago. The board gave them some advice and they took it and did exactly what the board said to do.”
Damelio says the indictment won’t restrict the mayor from handling the duties of her office.
“She wants you to know Monday morning that she’s coming to work and she’s going to represent the constituents with the same vigor and dedication that she does every single day on the job,” Damelio, said. “She’s going to walk into the building with her head held high and she’s going to go to work.”
“We know there’s some problems in this city and she’s working to correct them,” said Damelio, adding he wants a quick trial because Warren plans to run again next year.
The New York State Board of Elections began investigating after complains were made in April 2017. The Monroe COnuty District Attorney’s Office assumed jurisdiction of the investigation in August 2018, with assistance from the NYS BOE.
Last month, Monroe County prosecutors were scheduled to present their case to a grand jury. In August, WXXI radio host Evan Dawson said he had been subpoenaed and was asked to confirm information for a grand jury. Dawson’s subpoena follows reports of a number of other subpoenas all seemingly attached to a case being built by Doorley.
That same week where Dawson was subpoenaed, during a press conference about introducing city residency requirements to the Rochester Police Department, Mayor Warren responded to a question on the topic saying:
“I just think that this was a complaint done in my re-election campaign from 2017. We’re now in 2020 and this has just come to fruition. Ask yourself why? Come January I’ll be running for re-election and I believe this a political witch hunt. I think that it’s wrong, and I think that people have overstepped here, and my attorney’s plans on defending me to the fullest extent of the law. I think that it is imperative that the people in this community understand what is going on here and I would hope that our media would go and do their research and look into this. We are talking about something that happened or alleged to happen four years ago. All of a sudden now its coming to fruition right before I get ready to run for re-election. Ask yourself who is running against me and who are they tied to.”
In the backdrop of the indictment is ongoing civil unrest in the city in the aftermath of Daniel Prude’s death. Protesters have consistently called on Mayor Warren to resign for the city’s handling of Prude’s death, as the family has alleged an internal cover-up in a federal civil lawsuit.
Barnhart, who jointly filed the complaint in 2017 against Warren, issued a statement on Twitter after Doorley’s announcement, saying:
“When James Sheppard and I filed our complaints about Lovely Warren’s campaign finance activity, we knew there would be no change in the outcome of the election. But it was important. We need to make sure elected officials are acting in the public’s interest, not in their own interest and the interest of donors.
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 alleged violations is nothing short of cheating. Whether it’s Russia conspiring to help Trump, or the mayor conspiring to solicit over-limit donations, it’s wrong and illegal.
This was pay to play on steroids. The mayor got campaign money. Donors got city grants and contracts. We all need to ask ourselves if the public benefited from this scheme.
The felony charges against the mayor are very sad and will plunge our city further into turmoil. The Daniel Prude and campaign finance crises stem from the same thing: corruption. There is a culture of governing in self-interest, including running roughshod over laws, rules and ethical norms.
We must look at reforms to rebuild public trust and prevent future wrongdoing. Specifically, we need an elected comptroller’s office to replace the Office of Public Integrity and Finance Department and an independent ethics board. We have to reflect on what kind of government we want in the future.”
Rochester City Council President Loretta Scott released a statement regarding the indictment:
“Today, a grand jury indicted Mayor Warren and City Finance Director Brooks-Harris, and while I have not had the opportunity to review the indictment in detail, I am obviously saddened by this news. I believe in due process and that everyone is innocent until proven otherwise. I want to assure the community that the business of the City will continue uninterrupted.”
Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story.
Full press conference in here: