Campaign Finance Lawsuit

If you haven’t been following it, according to the papers (e.g. here, here, here and here) the story is basically as follows.

State Senator Gerald “DINO” Dial lost the Democratic primary election to Kim Benefield. Benefield had received almost $300,000 in support from four other Democrats: Senate President Pro Tem Lowell Barron of Fyffe, Senate Majority Leader Z eb Little of Cullman, and Senate budget committee chairmen Hank Sanders of Selma and Roger Bedford of Russellville.

Those four could afford to spend such large sums on another race because none of them had any opposition in their own primaries. Being unopposed also meant, according to this AG’s opinion, that they did not have to file financial disclosure forms before the primary elections.

Dino wanted revenge, and so he complained to the Secretary of State that the four had not filed their discolsure forms. The SOS, relying on the AG opinion, said they did not have to file them. Dino then asked for a new AG opinion on the issue. He got it. In this opinion, Troy King said that in some situations the reports must be filed even when there is no opposition. However, King also recognized that plenty of people had relied on the old opinion, so he said they would enforce the new one prospectively.

Since then, Mark Montiel has filed a lawsuit seeking to remove the four Democrats from the ballot because they failed to file the disclosure forms. Dino says he had nothing to do with the suit. They are currently fighting over the proper forum for the suit, so it looks like whatever occurs won’t happen until after the elections.

There are plenty of interesting parts to this story.

First, and most obviously, the motives are nothing but the worst kind of party politics. If Montiel was concerned about the law, he would have also included the Republicans who allegedly did the same thing as these four Democrats: Senate Minority Leader Jabo Waggoner of Vestavia Hills, Steve French of Birmingham, Harri Anne Smith of Slocomb and Dell Marsh of Anniston. Montiel was a candidate for AG, and early in the race I gave him my half-hearted support. Big mistake; this guy is a tool.

Second, the motives don’t have any bearing on the merits of the suit. Accusations of bias and foul play are good for the press, and important to remember if Montiel ever runs for office again, but they don’t change the facts or the law.

Finally, there are the legal issues. Until now, everyone has understood that there is no need to report when there is no primary opponent. Section 22A-17-8 of the code says candidates have to file disclosure forms:

Forty-five days before and between 10 and five days before the date of any election for which a political committee receives contributions or makes expenditures with a view toward influencing such election’s result.

If a candidate is unopposed in the party primary, that candidate is the party’s nominee. There won’t even be an election. Hence, the funds are not received or spent “with a view towards influencing such election’s result.” Also, the whole purpose of disclosure is to inform the voters. So if there is no vote, there is no need for disclosure. Thus, until now, no-one thought that unopposed candidates needed to file the forms.

I’m not sure I completely follow the new AG opinion, but I think what it says is that while the previous understanding is generally correct, there are exceptions:

A candidate with no primary opponent would, however, be required to file disclosure reports if the candidate’s principal campaign committee is receiving contributions and/or making expenditures that reach the threshold amount “with a view toward influencing” the results of his or another candidate’s election. For example, a candidate may raise money for his or her campaign in anticipa­tion of the primary election and actually receive contributions that reach the threshold amount before the filing deadline for the 45-day report. The candidate must file a 45-day report before the primary election to disclose the contribu­tions received and report any expenditures made during this reporting period. This report must be filed even if the candidate does not have opposition in the primary election. It is the fact that the contributions were received by the can­didate for the purpose of influencing the primary election results that triggers the reporting requirement. Similarly, if a candidate expended funds at or in excess of the threshold amount for the purpose of influencing the primary elec­tion results, whether to influence the candidate’s own election or another can­didate’s election, that candidate would have to file disclosure reports.

What that means is that when, as in this case, an unopposed candidate spends money on another primary, the money has been spent with a view towards influencing that primary and therefore triggers the disclosure requirements.

So who is correct? I don’t know. This is going to be a thorny issue of statutory construction. My guess is that the legislature meant to require candidates to disclose finances related to their own elections. I don’t see a purpose in requiring disclosure when the candidate has done nothing but spend money on another person’s campaign. In that situation, the candidate is more like a normal political donor or voter than a candidate.

Whatever the outcome, I think Troy King was right that it should apply prospectively. This is a confusing issue, and it would be unfair to penalize anyone who acted in reliance on the old interpretation.

Explore posts in the same categories: Alabama Legislature, Elections

One Comment on “Campaign Finance Lawsuit”

  1. […] Dan has his thoughts here.  Danny has plenty of coverage, you can start here, or here. I commented on the merits of the suit here. And Loretta Nall offers what may be the best suggestion: Wouldn’t it be an amazing thing if both of these lawsuits actually managed to clean out the state house and senate to a large degree? Just think, we might actually be able to place competent people in their positions and change the course of Alabama forever. […]

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