Missing Information Dogs Council Candidate's Campaign Filings

Cinthia Estela raised her kids in District 7 and is a member of the Laveen Community Council.
Cinthia Estela raised her kids in District 7 and is a member of the Laveen Community Council. Courtesy of Cinthia Estela
On Phoenix City Council candidate Cinthia Estela's most recent campaign finance report, the words "best efforts" appear in the place of required information 60 times.

The phrase amounts to an exemption, meaning her campaign tried to get that information but was unable.

Of the 80 individual donations over $50 listed on her October 15 report, three-quarters are missing information about the employer and occupation of the donors. Overall, one-third of the money raised by Estela's campaign is from people whose employer is listed as "best efforts."

Two campaign consultants, Rodd McLeod and Mario Diaz, told Phoenix New Times that amount of missing information was surprising and concerning. Both consultants have donated to other candidates in the race, but said they are otherwise are uninvolved in the race.

“That’s an administrative embarrassment, quite frankly,” said Diaz.

Diaz said the missing occupation and employer info is important because the type of industries supporting a candidate could decide someone's vote.

The biggest donors missing occupation info were developer Joe Risi, real estate investment group head Gerald Schwalbach, real estate investor Wayne Howard, and zoning and land use lawyer Nicholas Wood, New Times found. The rest include a combination of developers, a family of dentists and former Suns owner and developer Jerry Colangelo.

Estela is running for Phoenix's open District 7 seat. She's considered a frontrunner in the race to represent Phoenix's most populous district — which stretches from Roosevelt Row to Laveen — and has been endorsed by outgoing councilmember Michael Nowakowski.

In an interview with New Times, Estela campaign consultant Kyle Moyer said the missing information was due to the difficulty of collecting employment information when doing fundraisers via Zoom instead of doing them in-person, and that using PayPal didn't allow the campaign to require that information was submitted with donations.

“The majority of [Estela's] fundraising experience has been done through Zoom meetings," he said, citing COVID-19.

Moyer said the campaign since switched to a new donation system and has been able to collect 95 percent of the missing information from donors by following up with fundraiser hosts. The campaign will be updating the information shortly, he said.

"Nothing is going unreported," Moyer said. The developers who donated share a common vision of economic development with Estela, and anyone with concerns should wonder why the developers investing in Phoenix don't want to support other campaigns more, he said.

Estela also listed her political action committee (PAC) donations — largely from police organizations — under her donations from individuals, instead of breaking them out into the area meant for PAC contributions, and New Times found numerous cases of repeat donors whose cumulative donation amounts were not reported in each entry as required.

Despite those issues, Moyer said that the reports were providing all the necessary information — if not in all the right places — and he would look into what had happened with the incorrectly filled out sections. He speculated that it could be an issue when exporting it from the spreadsheet.

This isn't the first time Estela's campaign has been dinged over a filing. A complaint about issues with Estela's initial finance report this spring — filed by a grad student working on one of her opponent's campaign — is currently going through the complaint process, a spokesperson for the Phoenix clerk's office said. The complaint alleges incorrect overall totals on the report, a failure to list individual donors' cumulative amounts given, missing or inaccurate employer info for donors, and a number of other technical mistakes.

In a letter to the city, an attorney for Estela's campaign acknowledged there were discrepancies, but he attributed them to the untimely death of Estela's former campaign manager and said they had since been corrected.

Bill Scheel, a spokesperson for Estela opponent Yassamin Ansari, called on the city attorney to complete a full investigation.

“It’s clear from the numerous irregularities in Cinthia Estela’s campaign finance reports that she makes no effort to comply with the law, or is deliberately evading it," he said in a statement.

Moyer denied there is any pattern. He pointed out that the issues were related to unique circumstances and were being corrected.

Estela's filings also stand out due to the $4,600 spent on "refreshments" — which no other candidate has allocated money for. The charges range from $3.39 spent at Dunkin Donuts to $198 spent on one trip to Red Lobster.

Moyer said this money was spent on buying food and drinks for Estela's 40-plus volunteers.

“Unlike [Estela's] opponents who are paying for their field operations by wage, [Estela's] field program is entirely volunteer-based,” he said. She would take volunteers to get food when they canvassed and needed to switch it up to keep people interested, he said, adding that the money spent at Red Lobster was a celebration after reaching 10,000 doors.

Ansari, whose campaign has paid $80,600 to a consulting firm for 15 paid canvassers, said paid efforts are in addition to her more than 50 regular volunteers. Most of the paid canvassers speak Spanish and are part of an effort to drive up engagement in the district.

“We want to make sure we are reaching everyone,” she said, noting that not everyone can afford to take time to volunteer without pay and that she was creating jobs in the district.

Either way, Estela's volunteers have been eating well. In the six months between the beginning of April and the end of September, Estela noted charges at 54 different establishments. The top restaurants patronized were an Italian restaurant and a pizza place in Laveen, where Estela lives and campaigns, but also include $169 spent in five trips to Lux Coffee in midtown and $69 spent at The Vig, which bills itself as an "upscale tavern" in downtown.

One other figure stood out in the filings. Ansari, a climate nonprofit adviser and Scottsdale banking research firm consultant, has boasted that she broke the record for the most money raised in a Phoenix City Council race.

However, while Ansari leads the pack in dollars coming directly from Phoenix residents, pulling in $98,040, only 53 percent of the total $355,000 she's raised from people donating $50 or more has come from people actually living in Arizona, and less than 30 percent of the total has come from donors who listed their address as the city of Phoenix, a New Times analysis found.

Ansari, who grew up in Maricopa County before attending Stanford University and the University of Cambridge,  attributed her out-of-state donors to her wide-ranging connections. She said a significant chunk of the donations are from people who also work in climate advocacy and are passionate about that part of her platform. She's also received support from Stanford alums and members of the national Iranian American community, including $1,000 from the National Iranian American Council.

“I’ve worked out-of-state for many years,” she said, while asserting that she still has strong connections in Arizona. While Ansari only moved to District 7 two years ago, she said that she's gotten a number of in-district donations from people that her campaign has canvassed or who have called in amounts less than $50.

Overall, Ansari has raised $10,525 in donations from people who gave less than $50, more than twice the rest of the candidates combined — although there is no way to confirm where those donors are located, as that information is not required to be disclosed.

Soliciting out-of-state money isn't necessarily unusual, said McLeod, the campaign consultant. McLeod donated to Ansari but said he hasn't been following the race closely.

"When you run for office the first thing you do is you call everyone you know who has money who can contribute," he said.

Estela, the second-largest fundraiser, with a total of $175,000, has raised nearly $40,000 from people associated with the medical marijuana industry, which she has supported since her father's fight with cancer, and which she is connected to through an apparent friendship with cannabis entrepreneur Susan Hwang.

Nearly a quarter of the $85,000 raised by the third-largest fundraiser, Francisca Montoya, comes from her colleagues at the Raza Development Fund, a project of UnidosUS that provides capital and loans to nonprofits and small businesses serving Latino people. 
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Erasmus Baxter was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.