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‘Ya Fav Trashman’ mishandled campaign funds and bilked staffers. He says he wants to make things right.

Philadelphia Inquirer 3/10/2023 Max Marin, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Terrill Haigler, known as his social media handle 'Ya Fav Trashman,' talks during a litter pick-up event along Coral Street in Philadelphia in January 2022. © DAVID MAIALETTI/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Terrill Haigler, known as his social media handle 'Ya Fav Trashman,' talks during a litter pick-up event along Coral Street in Philadelphia in January 2022.

Terrill Haigler, a former city sanitation worker who gained Instagram fame under his alter ego “Ya Fav Trashman,” ended his campaign for Philadelphia City Council this week, telling his thousands of social media followers he did not get enough signatures to appear on the ballot.

But behind the scenes, financial problems plagued his short-lived campaign.

Haigler hasn’t paid his staffers, used campaign funding for personal expenses in a possible violation of Pennsylvania law, and could face penalties from the city’s Board of Ethics for failing to account for the money.

He owes both of his former campaign staffers a combined $14,000 for their full-time work from early January until they left in February, he acknowledged in an interview Wednesday. One of the staffers, who asked not to be identified while searching for other employment, said they hounded Haigler for weeks while he refused payment.

Terrill Haigler, 33, of North Philadelphia, is a former sanitation worker known as “Ya Fav Trashman.” © TYGER WILLIAMS/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Terrill Haigler, 33, of North Philadelphia, is a former sanitation worker known as “Ya Fav Trashman.”

Haigler, 33, said that he had personal differences with the staff members, but it was never his intention to stiff them. He attributed the lack of payment to fund-raising shortfalls and vowed to pay them — with interest — by the end of the month.

“When it came to pay them, I was short in the bank,” Haigler said. “I wanted to see if I could bring in the money to pay them, and ultimately I didn’t raise enough. … I never not want to pay somebody.”

But he did pay himself.

Expense records obtained by The Inquirer show that Haigler’s campaign spent over $26,700 from September to February. Most of that — $17,209 — went directly to Haigler’s personal bank account through nearly 200 Cash App payments.

Moving campaign funds to a private bank account is prohibited under city and state campaign finance law. Under Pennsylvania law, candidates can only spend money to influence the outcome of the election. Experts said covering a candidate’s personal expenses unrelated to the campaign is widely considered off limits.

Haigler did not dispute the payments. Some of the transfers went to legitimate expenses like campaign literature, he said, but most of it was basic income he needed to survive.

“I didn’t say I’m going to pay myself $2,000 a month, because I didn’t know what I was going to be fund-raising and spending,” Haigler said. “I just knew that I had to stop everything that I was doing and be unemployed. In order to run, I can’t be homeless, I can’t go hungry. I have three children to take care of.”

Haigler said he had been coached on campaign finance laws, but didn’t know there was anything wrong with using his political account to pay his rent, bills, and other personal expenses.

“I’m getting SaladWorks, or getting an Uber, or paying my gas bill which is like $250, so I can stay warm during the winter,” Haigler said. “That’s what I was using it for — to live.”

From viral trashman to aspiring politician

Haigler, of North Philadelphia, rose quickly from unknown city trashman to a buzzworthy candidate with populist appeal.

What began as an Instagram experiment to chronicle the dirty realism of his job during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 blossomed into a full-time activism career. In a city at constant war with trash, he amassed more than 33,000 followers and gained national attention for his efforts to obtain personal protective equipment for his fellow sanitation workers. He later founded a nonprofit, Trash 2 Treasure, which organizes community cleanups, and a trash-hauling company.

In September, he launched a campaign for City Council at-large as an everyman candidate seeking to address quality-of-life issues from City Hall.

But he soon found himself in over his head.

“I thought I was prepared. I thought I had asked enough questions, but I didn’t,” Haigler said Wednesday.

In a social media video announcing the end of his campaign this week, he said his short-lived run had been an “amazing experience,” but also acknowledged he had “made some mistakes.”

Haigler now acknowledges he may have unintentionally violated campaign laws.

Campaigns are legally required to disclose every penny raised and spent and must name a treasurer to manage campaign spending. But Haigler’s treasurer left his campaign and the candidate said he takes responsibility for any financial missteps.

Crossing the line

Nationwide, political groups have been seeking to loosen rules around candidates paying themselves salaries in order to allow more working-class people and candidates from nontraditional political backgrounds to run for office.

Candidates for federal office have some leeway to pay themselves what amounts to a salary. Alexandra Hunt, now a city controller candidate, drew a campaign salary during her failed run for Congress against U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans last year. But the federal rules require strict disclosure and justification of the salary — none of which Haigler did — and state campaign laws remain less clear on the issue. State lawmakers have sought to strengthen bans on personal use of campaign funds after abuses in recent years.

Without clear accounting, campaign law experts said there is no way to distinguish between a living wage and profiting off of donors.

“There is one clear, black-letter, bold line, and that is the candidate does not justput the money in their own pocket,” said Philadelphia election attorney Kevin Greenberg, who had no affiliation with Haigler’s campaign.

The city also prohibits moving money to private accounts — which would likely include Haigler’s use of a mobile payment app linked to a private account — as a way to limit corruption and ensure transparent disclosures of political contributions and expenditures.

“It’s pretty simple, it’s one pipe in and one pipe out. You can’t use other accounts,” said Shane Creamer, director of the city’s Board of Ethics, which enforces campaign finance law. (He declined to comment on whether the board is investigating Haigler’s campaign.)

Haigler could still face potential penalties from the board.

His campaign also failed to list any of the legally required donor contributions or expenses on his end-of-year campaign finance report, which he attributed to technical issues uploading the forms.

Haigler said he would go to the Board of Ethics to make things right with documentation of his donors and expenses.

He said he hoped future grassroots candidates could learn from the mistakes he made while trying to support his family and run a political campaign as a one-man operation.

“I try to be honest, I try to be open,” Haigler said. “I live my life on Instagram, so I have no other choice.”

©2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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