Richard Green casts his ballot at the Sedgwick County Election Office on Oct. 20 with the help of poll worker Sue Weltmar. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)
Richard Green casts his ballot at the Sedgwick County Election Office on Oct. 20 with the help of poll worker Sue Weltmar. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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As Wichita City Council candidates face off in elections that end Tuesday, their latest campaign filings show that corporate contributions played a significant role in the general election — just as they did in the primary

Voters are casting ballots in three races — Districts 1, 3 and 6. 

Corporate or LLC donations totaled 18% to 53% of contributions to the city council incumbents — Jared Cerullo, Cindy Claycomb and Brandon Johnson. Among challengers, 13% of donations to Maggie Ballard came from corporations or LLCs, while Myron Ackerman and Mike Hoheisel received none.

The influx comes after the council changed its campaign finance policies in 2015 to permit corporations, businesses and political action committees to donate in city elections.

The campaign reports in July and October showed a pattern of donations from developers and construction companies. But the latest reports also show donations from LLCs affiliated with Genesis Health Clubs, a city contractor that may be bidding to buy the Wichita Ice Center. Additionally, October’s reports show how candidates spent campaign dollars leading up to the general election. 

‘There’s a lot of mystery behind the true donors’

The latest reports showed that two LLCs —  Sky Trampoline Park in Salina and Leap Family Entertainment, with locations in Salina and Topeka —  each donated $500 to the campaigns of Cerullo and Johnson.

The two trampoline parks are affiliated with Genesis Health Clubs, which does business with the city. Rodney Stevens, owner and president of Genesis, is an owner of Sky Trampoline Park, while Chief Financial Officer Ryan Brooks is affiliated with both, according to the Kansas Secretary of State’s office. Both LLCs share mailing addresses with Genesis. 

“Each of our LLCs has a budget for civic and charitable donations,” Jake McCabe, vice president of marketing for Genesis, wrote in an email to The Wichita Beacon. “Both companies had yet to make any donations this year, so per our standard procedure, the donations were issued from accounts with remaining budgets.”

Josh Gardner, general manager of Sky Trampoline Park, said he was not aware of the donation and was not authorized to donate more than $50. When The Beacon called Leap Family Entertainment, the person who answered said he was not privy to information about the donation. 

Genesis manages the Wichita Ice Center on Maple Street near downtown, but the contract expires in January. Throughout Genesis’ time operating the rink, users have complained that the facility has not been properly maintained or upgraded. Last year, over 3,600 people signed a petition requesting that the city change management of the facility.  

In September, the city sought proposals to purchase or manage the ice center. Responses were due Oct. 15. 

Genesis was one of two companies that attended a pre-proposal meeting with the city prior to the bidding, said Troy Houtman, the city’s parks and recreation director. The bids are being reviewed and won’t be released during the evaluation, said city spokesperson Megan Lovely. Staff will “provide a recommendation to the Park Board and then to the Council in the coming weeks” about which bid to accept, Lovely added in an email to The Beacon.  

Johnson said he was not aware of the ties between the trampoline parks and Genesis. Cerullo did not respond to a request for comment.

LLCs are sometimes used in campaign donations on the federal level because donors don’t want their names attached to their giving, said Beth Rotman, director of money in politics and ethics at Common Cause. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focuses on campaign finance and government accountability

“It’s easy to set up these LLCs, and there’s a lot of mystery behind the true donors behind these LLCs,” Rotman said. 

The Beacon also found LLCs listed as campaign donors with out-of-date names, making them difficult to find on the secretary of state’s website. Triple J of Wichita LLC, which in September donated $500 each to Cerullo and Claycomb, changed its name to Cornejo Holdings LLC in October 2020. 

“If they make a mistake and report the incorrect name, if we’re aware of the error, we will send out a notice asking them to amend the report properly to correctly reflect the donor,” said Mark Skoglund, executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.

Local developers behind many LLCs, corporations

Local developers and owners of construction companies were behind the majority — 52% — of the LLCs and corporations that donated to the six candidates.

Ten LLCs affiliated with local developer David Burk gave $500 to Claycomb’s campaign. Four gave to Cerullo’s campaign. 

In the past two years, developments associated with Burk received $31.7 million in tax incentives from the city. 

Several political action committees also donated to candidates during this filing period, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC — which gave $500 to Claycomb, Ballard and Hoheisel — and the International Association of Firefighters Local 153 FirePAC — which gave $500 to Ballard and Hoheisel. 

How candidates spent their campaign dollars

The campaign reports also required candidates to list campaign expenditures. Claycomb outspent all the other candidates combined, with expenses totaling $105,294. 

Claycomb’s largest expenditure was $60,000 to Wichita-based Copp Media Services. The expense was larger than the total expenses of the five other candidates combined.

Sheila Frye, business manager at Copp Media, said Claycomb paid for radio advertising, billboards and digital media advertising. 

Claycomb did not respond to a request for comment regarding the payment. 

Both Ballard and Hoheisel spent a significant portion of their campaign dollars — $7,000 and $3,000, respectively — on political consulting group Ad Astra Group LLC. The payments were for designing, printing and digital advertising. 

Ad Astra also received $6,463 from Wichita’s Future PAC for “design, print, postage,” as well as texting and a robocall operation. Chelsea Whipple — who is married to Mayor Brandon Whipple, who doesn’t face re-election until 2023 — is chair of the PAC.

Casey Yingling, managing member and attorney for Ad Astra, said the funds from Wichita’s Future PAC were used “entirely for get-out-the-vote activities.” She said none of Wichita’s Future PAC money went toward campaign materials for Ballard or Hoheisel.

If the PAC did spend more than $300 advocating for or against a specific candidate, it would need to identify which candidate it spent money on, according to guidelines from the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission. The latest report does not list any candidates for whom the PAC is campaigning.

“Wichita’s Future PAC did not use any resources to express advocacy on any engagement activities with candidates,” Chelsea Whipple wrote in an email to The Beacon.

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.