Friday, September 30, 2011

Indiana Election Commission Dismisses Complaint Against House Dems Over Walkout

To me, the issue is very clear. Indiana law prohibits state lawmakers from soliciting campaign contributions while the legislature is in session. The House Democratic members who participated in the walkout this past legislative session violated that law when they solicited campaign contributions through the Indiana Democratic Party to finance the cost of their walkout. Most of those campaign contributions came from labor unions, which directly benefited from the lawmakers' walkout over legislation the unions opposed. The Indiana Election Commission took up a complaint filed against State Rep. Kraig Battles (D-Vincennes) by one of his constituents over the issue at its meeting this week. The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly has the story over the Commission's debate of the issue that ended in the complaint being dismissed for now since Battles hasn't filed his campaign finance report covering the period in question and won't do so until January:

Legislators are prohibited from soliciting or receiving campaign contributions during the long budget session of the General Assembly, which is when the walkout occurred.
The Indiana Democratic Party paid about $95,000 in Urbana expenses, according to its campaign finance report.
Some Republicans during the walkout said the state party’s payment of those expenses should be counted as an in-kind campaign contribution.
“(Battles) came across this money somehow. The question is did he solicit?” Dumezich said. “And unless the Indiana Democratic Party plans to give legislators a 1099 or W2 for the amount of money spent on vacation in Illinois, it had to come from somewhere.”
Democratic officials contend they financed a caucus – not campaign activity.
Neither Battles nor Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker attended Thursday’s hearing.
“My understanding is that this was not sanctioned by the commission, only Dumezich,” Parker said via email. “It’s not a formal proceeding, just a fishing expedition.”
While the complaint is specifically against Battles, any finding in the case would likely apply to all the House Democrats who left town, including Reps. Win Moses and Phil GiaQuinta, both of Fort Wayne.
Members of the election commission never got to the substance of the complaint because the two Democratic members questioned whether Dumezich had the authority to unilaterally place the item on the agenda for investigation.
The commission has two Republican members and two Democratic members and often deadlocks on issues with political overtones.
Legal counsel for the Republican and Democratic co-directors of the Indiana Election Division differed on Dumezich’s authority, so the group is asking Attorney General Greg Zoeller for an advisory opinion on the applicable law.
During Thursday’s discussion, it became clear that Battles has not filed a campaign finance report for the time period in question because he isn’t required to do so until January.
Democratic member Sarah Steele Riordan said, given this fact, there is no substantial likelihood of a violation.
“I do not understand what we are doing right now,” she said.
Dumezich conceded the point, and the group voted unanimously to dismiss the complaint.
But he said in January, if the contribution isn’t listed on Battles’ report, the commission should consider the issue again. Even so, it takes three members to penalize a candidate.
I'm happy to see that the Commission is at least asking Attorney General Greg Zoeller to issue an advisory opinion on the law in question. As I have previously pointed out, this is one of those few laws where he actually is statutorily empowered with enforcement authority. Zoeller wimped out during the walkout controversy and refused to use his authority under the statute, although he was more than happy to have his office get involved in a debate recently before the Ft. Wayne City Council over whether councilors had authority to impose restrictions on campaign contributions made to municipal candidates. Zoeller's office issued an advisory opinion saying the council lacked statutory authority to enact such a law, even though Jeffersonville has had a similar statute on the books it has enforced for several years now. If Zoeller interprets the law correctly, then he will then be in the predicament of admitting publicly his failure to enforce the state law prohibiting lawmakers from soliciting contributions while they are in session. My guess is he will wimp out again and limit his advisory opinion to whether the Commission Chairman has authority to unilaterally put an issue in front of the Commission.

Wouldn't that be something if partisan appointees of the Commission can always block a complaint from being heard just because it's an issue involving law-breaking by members of its own party? Anyone else see the irony here in the Democratic members blocking consideration of a complaint filed by a member of the public on a legitimate campaign finance question after the Democrats spent the past year trying to use the Commission's authority to bounce Secretary of State Charlie White from office over the specious claim that he was not a registerered voter of this state? Yeah, I would say it makes them big time hypocrites.

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