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Suffolk sheriff's event mixes campaign and charity
By JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE , The Virginian-Pilot
© April 6, 2006

SUFFOLK — Sheriff Raleigh H. Isaacs Sr. hosts an annual adult basketball tournament that his office bills as a fundraiser to help senior citizens. Most of the proceeds help get the sheriff re-elected.

Nearly $13,250 raised by the tournament has gone to Isaacs’ campaign coffers in the past three years, according to numbers he provided last week. Less than a third of those profits, about $4,040 , went toward the tournament’s stated aim of aiding an annual function for seniors.

Some donors had no idea they were giving to a campaign. Thinking they were aiding a charitable purpose, city parks officials provided a venue and personnel to work, free of charge, according to Dennis Craff , a city spokesman.

Records show Isaacs used his public office to advertise what was a political event. The sheriff failed to report on campaign financial disclosure forms how the money was raised or from whom it came. Before the money landed in his campaign fund, it made a stop in another account.

The sheriff, who is his own political treasurer, said it was easier to handle money this way. He did not mean to do anything wrong, he said.

“We’re not trying to disguise it,” Isaacs said.

A tournament check would come in and be deposited into a “Suffolk Sheriff Community Service” fund, which paid tournament bills and held money before the remainder was sent to a campaign depository, he said. When the money eventually got to his campaign, Isaacs didn’t report donors who gave more than $100 , as the law requires.

Chris Piper , a state campaign finance administrator, was uncertain whether the dual accounts were proper but said it sounded as if Isaacs had not reported some donors. Political funds are supposed to be deposited in an account “properly identifying the name of and the existence of the political candidacy,” state law says.

“I probably need to call a meeting of the electoral board and see what they want to do about this,” said Patsy Parker , Suffolk’s registrar. The board is scheduled to meet at 3 p.m. today at the registrar’s office at 425 W. Washington St .

The Virginian-Pilot’s review followed an examination of how former Portsmouth Sheriff Gary Waters used political money. That campaign is the subject of an investigation.

Waters has refused to comment about his situation. Is­aacs discussed how his tournament works during a lengthy interview in his office and other conversations.

“If we need to make changes, we’ll certainly make changes,” he said.

“But the tournament is a good thing.”

Isaacs said he assumed people realized the tournament was political because teams wrote checks to “Friends of Raleigh Isaacs.”

“Well, we made it out to the Sheriff’s Department, so I’m sure they did something good with it,” said Esther Mason , owner of the Style Shop salon, which sponsored a team last year . “One of the deputies, he’s one of my customers. It was for charity. … They’ve been having the sheriff’s tournament for years and I didn’t hear about it being political.”

Solicitation letters for basketball tournaments held in 2004 and 2005 mention neither the political beneficiary nor the campaign.

Both letters were printed on Office of the Sheriff letterhead. The letter directs people to a phone number that rings to the sheriff’s administrative offices within the courthouse on North Main Street and provides the office’s mailing address.

Ricky Scott , a sergeant in the Sheriff’s Office, signed both letters. Isaacs said he had never seen them before, though his office provided a copy of a letter to The Pilot .

“Once again,” Scott wrote last year, “the proceeds from this fundraiser will allow our office to sponsor the upcoming Senior Citizens Forum held in the City of Suffolk.”

Isaacs said he did not know the letters were written on official letterhead. He said that would stop. This year’s event, slated for June, already has been advertised on letterhead.

Teams pay $275 to play in the tournament, well over the $100 threshold at which state law requires donors to be named in financial disclosures.

Isaacs reported a lump sum on part of the disclosure meant for contributions under $100, his reports show.

His campaign disclosure forms appear to justify this by reporting there were more donors than the number of checks that were actually cut to him.

This math implies contributions were below the legal threshold for reporting. According to a list Isaacs provided, most teams in 2005 paid $275 by check.

If the checks were sent through the community fund, that account could be considered the donor, Piper said. It also might be considered a political action committee, which would mean it should disclose donors, he said.

Isaacs explained how his tournament funded his campaign after The Pilot questioned two payments, totaling $550 , from the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office .

“I didn’t know,” Isaacs said, asked if he knew his campaign got public money.

Neither did the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office. The money Sheriff Robert McCabe’s office sent to Isaacs was from the Norfolk Deputy Fund, raised from sources such as vending machines and courthouse lockers.

The checks were both cut to “Friends of Raleigh

Isaacs,” according to records obtained from the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“It’s on Suffolk Sheriff’s Office letterhead and it said it was for charity,” said Emily Munn , legal counsel for Norfolk’s sheriff. “Our understanding was that it was for charity. We know Raleigh. We know he does a lot of good things for the community of Suffolk.”

The payment the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office reported making last year wasn’t on the 2005 list of teams Isaacs provided.

Others were. The Hampton Roads Regional Jail cut a check from its operating fund for a team, according to a copy of the canceled check.

Eugene Taylor , a captain at the regional jail who at least three times has coached teams that played in Isaacs’ tournament , said the money they used to pay for the tournament is public.

“My thoughts were it was going to the Suffolk Sheriff’s Office,” Taylor said.

The check was made out to “Friends of Raleigh Isaacs,” deposited to “Suffolk Sheriff Community Services,” and endorsed on the back by Isaacs.