State senate aims to crack down on campaign finance

PHOENIX -- Saying the law needs some teeth, a Senate panel voted 6-1 Tuesday to make what Attorney General Tom Horne is accused of doing a crime, punishable by time in state prison.

SB 1336 would not affect the ongoing civil complaint against Horne, aide Kathleen Winn or Business Leaders of Arizona, the organization she formed to help Horne get elected. They are accused of illegally coordinating the activities and spending of her independent expenditure committee with his campaign.

Instead, the measure would apply only to future incidents.

But Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Daniel Seiden said there needs to be real penalties, with real consequences, to deter future violations. Current laws carry only a civil fine that equals three times the illegally spent amount.

"We run the risk of creating an environment where whether or not someone would cheat to get into office ... would kind of be nothing more than a math equation,' he told members of the Senate Committee on Elections, with conspirators free to decide now that the penalty if caught does not outweigh the political benefits of breaking the law.

Separately, the committee voted along party lines to make it a crime for anyone who is not a family member to deliver an individual's early ballot to the polls. Republicans said SB 1003 protects the integrity of the ballots; Democrats charged it is designed to suppress the votes of minorities and the elderly who often get help from volunteers.

And the panel gave unanimous approval to SB 1335, which bars the Secretary of State, as the chief elections officer, from serving on any other candidate's campaign committee.

The independent expenditure proposal, crafted by Sen. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix, drew sharp fire from attorney Tim LaSota who is defending Winn and her committee.

"Putting this powerful and blunt tool with a very poorly worded statute in the hands of a new group of prosecutors is simply something I would not recommend,' he said.

The civil case charges against Horne and Winn stem from an FBI investigation that Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said concluded she illegally coordinated expenses with him.

Winn was supposedly running an independent expenditure committee designed to promote Horne's 2010 bid for attorney general. She raised money for a last-minute commercial promoting Horne's election.

Such coordination, Montgomery said last year, violates state election laws.

The charges against them are civil. But Montgomery he made it clear at that time that he believes what he contends Horne and Winn did merits a sanction more severe than he can bring under existing law.

"I believe the current enforcement provisions are inadequate to prevent the kind of conduct we're trying to prohibit,' Montgomery said. "At the end of the day, there really is no sanction in the law for the conduct that would really deter someone from engaging in it again in the future.'

On paper, the law provides a penalty equal to three times the $513,340 that Montgomery said Winn's committee spent illegally on that television commercial. This legislation would make it a Class 5 felony, which carries anywhere from 6 months to 2 1/2 years in state prison, to knowingly make an independent expenditure of at least $25,000 that was not truly independent.

SB 1336 also would expand the law to make it a crime, with a similar penalty, for anyone who receives money for a false independent expenditure.

The civil case against Horne and Winn is now in court, with the pair fighting Montgomery's effort to force them to pay the civil penalty.

LaSota, in trying unsuccessfully to kill the legislation, complained that it appears to be one sided.

He said Winn's committee ran its TV ads after another group called the Committee for Justice and Fairness spent money on a TV commercial short before the 2010 election urging people to call Horne and tell him to get tough on pedophiles. That commercial, he said, was based on inaccurate information of a vote that Horne took as a member of the state Board of Education.

But LaSota said the real problem is that this committee never disclosed its donors. And nothing in this new legislation addresses that problem.

How much the Legislature can do, however, remains unclear.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery has, in fact, tried to go after that group.

But last year Superior Court Judge Crane McClennen ruled the commercial was "issue-oriented speech' not subject to campaign laws. The judge said Arizona cannot force the committee to disclose its funding because it did not use certain "magic words,' like "vote for' or "defeat.'

McClennen's ruling is now before the state Court of Appeals.

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