Jury selection begins Monday in the campaign finance fraud criminal trial of Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and two of her political associates.
The three of them face two felony charges each — illegal coordination between political committees for the purpose of evading donor limits, and participating in a scheme to defraud in the first degree.
Both charges are classified as nonviolent Class E felonies, which carry penalties that range from no jail time to probation and up to four years in prison.
The associates facing trial with Warren are Albert Jones Jr., who was Warren’s campaign treasurer, and Rosalind Brooks, who was the treasurer of a political action committee created by Warren called Warren for a Strong Rochester. Brooks, who also goes by Rosalind Brooks-Harris, is the city’s finance director.
Accusations that Warren circumvented state campaign finance laws to bolster her re-election chances in 2017 have dogged her for four years.
Her first accusers were her opponents in the race — Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart and James Sheppard, a former county legislator and chief of Rochester police. Then, it was the state Board of Elections’ chief investigator. Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley followed suit. And last year, a grand jury indicted Warren and her associates on a pair of felony charges each.
The case against them is complex and rare. But in a nutshell, prosecutors allege that they illegally commingled the finances of two committees, one meant to fund Warren’s 2017 re-election campaign, and the other a political action committee for the betterment of the city of Rochester.
Prosecutors allege the entire political action committee was a fraud set up for the purposes of skirting state campaign donor limits to Warren’s campaign.
Political action committees can give money to a candidate for office, but they cannot spend on behalf of a candidate’s campaign. When a PAC gives money to a candidate, it is restricted to the same limits as any other donor.
The donation limit in the 2017 mayoral election cycle was $8,557, but records show that Warren for a Strong Rochester had transferred $30,000 to Friends of Lovely Warren.
Lawyers for Warren and her associates have insisted their clients are innocent and have said that any lapses they may have made were unintentional. That’s important because, to be guilty of the crimes in question, there has to be proof that any misuse of funds was intentional.
“Her position has not changed one bit and that is she’s innocent and that she maintains that she did not intend to violate the law, she did not knowingly violate the law and she’s anxious to get this process started and she’s ready to go to trial,” Warren’s lawyer, Joe Damelio, said upon her indictment last year.
Prosecutors have subpoenaed scores of potential witnesses to make their case and booked five weeks for the trial.
The task at hand Monday, though, is to select a jury from an enormous pool of about 1,200 people. Far more potential jurors than usual were summoned into service in part because of the mayor’s celebrity and notoriety.
Warren also faces a felony gun charge and two misdemeanor counts of endangering the welfare of a child in a different criminal case related to her estranged husband’s alleged role in a drug trafficking ring.
But that’s for another day.
David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.