Early in the debate, O'Donnell told the audience, "He paid $53,000 in a men's fashion show."
"My opponent is addicted to a culture of spending, waste, fraud and abuse, whether it's spending tax dollars on men's fashion shows, or to pay off his cronies with sweetheart pension deals and special interests," she added later, in her closing statement. "We already have enough politicians in Washington like that."
O'Donnell claimed that Coons, as New Castle County executive, used his office's contingency fund to pay for the fashion show. The contingency fund, which has about $300,000 a year, is built into the county executive's budget to pay for small expenses. According to the office's spokeswoman, those include sponsorships of community events and fundraisers.
The genesis of O'Donnell's claim seems to be on the blog Freedomist.com, where Pennsylvania writer Paul Collier posted a document labeled "FY 2008 Community Events From County Executive Contingency Fund."
The document shows an expenditure of $53,000 to Our Youth, Inc., for a "men of style fashion show / reception." It also shows $52,500 to the AFL-CIO for a banquet, which O'Donnell also referenced in the debate, saying "He paid another more than $50,000 to appease liberal special interest groups."
But the numbers aren't right. According to documents sent directly to TPMmuckraker from the county, Coons did buy tickets to Our Youth's fashion show, and AFL-CIO's banquet -- to the tune of $3,000 and $2,500, respectively.
"The five should be a dollar sign," the county executive spokeswoman, Angie Basiouny, told TPM. Other numbers cited on Collier's doc -- $5,600 for a golf tournament, $5,180 for a crab feast -- are only $600 and $180, respectively, according to the official government documents.
"We're trying to find out where that [document] came from. It's not from this office," she added.
Collier, the blogger who originally posted on the fashion show, told TPM he got the document from a "reliable source in politics." He refused to say whether it came from a campaign.
Our Youth, Inc., according to its web site, is a nonprofit organization that offers after-school programs, tutoring and other help to at-risk youth in Wilmington. It also used to run a summer program devoted to promoting sexual abstinence.
The president of Our Youth, Norman Oliver, confirmed to TPM that he had never received a $53,000 donation from Coons, but that he had bought tickets at past fundraisers. "I wish I could get $53,000 for these kids," he said.
The group's annual fashion and gala show "honors community leaders and honor students," according to the web site. The county documents show Coons' office bought 10 tickets to the gala.
O'Donnell's choice of words -- she said Coons used money on a "men's fashion show" twice last night -- echo tactics she used during the Republican primary. During the primary, she called her opponent, Mike Castle, "un-manly" after distancing herself from a former campaign aide who suggested Castle was gay.
O'Donnell's campaign has not responded to requests for clarification. Coons' campaign has also not responded to requests for comment.
Late update: Collier updated his original post to include TPM's reporting. From the updated post:
The bone of contention regards the number 5, indicating "53,000â³ was spent by the fund for the fashion show. There is a possible typo that may actually show $3,000 as the funded amount, instead of "53,000â³. Either way, if Chris Coons is using a contingency fund to pay for $53,000 for a fashion show, OR $3,000, while hiking taxes on property owners, it still shows his prevalence for taking from the middle class and the poor to fund his Elitist, crony, friends