West Virginia Campaign Finance Limits Challenged in Court
A political group formed to aid West Virginia incumbents this November won a partial victory Thursday after suing over the state’s limits on campaign contributions and a policy addressing corporate spending.
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, a target of the U.S. District Court lawsuit as West Virginia’s elections chief, agreed Thursday that the corporate policy is outdated and invalid. The policy is found in her office’s handbook for candidates.
The group, Stay the Course West Virginia, invoked the reason why in its federal challenge: the landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United that allowed unlimited direct spending by corporations and unions on elections, and the resulting change in state law.
“The Secretary of State regrets any misstatement in the handbook and immediately will correct the error,“ spokesman Jake Glance said in a statement Thursday. “Obviously when the code conflicts with the handbook, the code prevails. A lawsuit was not required to bring the error to the attention of the Secretary of State.“
Glance said that regulations meant to provide detail to state law also must be updated to reflect the 2010 change. He cited how Citizens United and other recent court cases have triggered rapid and ongoing changes to campaign finance rules.
Stay the Course also is challenging the $1,000-per-election cap on political contributions to non-federal candidates in West Virginia. Its lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Bluefield, argues that the cap violates the 1st Amendment right to free speech found in the U.S. Constitution.
A lawyer for the group, Allen Prunty, said that Tennant has done nothing wrong in administering current law but that the lawsuit seeks to bring those rules in line with what governs federal campaigns.
“West Virginia election laws are outmoded and inconsistent with recent decisions of the United States Supreme Court and other federal courts,“ Prunty said Thursday. “These court decisions have defined robust rights of political participation which West Virginia law unconstitutionally limits.“
Stay the Course West Virginia brought the case along with Thomas Stephen Bailey, listed as a Kanawha County resident who wants to give $1,200 to the group, and Pineville Lumber, a corporation that wants to contribute $5,000. David Bailey of St. Albans is also a plaintiff, as the group’s chairman and president.
Prunty described the group Thursday as an unaffiliated independent expenditure political action committee. Court filings show Stay the Course registered last month both with Tennant’s office as a PAC and with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as a “527” group, referring to the relevant section the tax code. The group will disclose its contributions as required by each agency, David Bailey said in a signed statement filed with the lawsuit.
Stay the Court aims “to support one or more incumbent West Virginia state government officeholders who have contributed to improving the West Virginia business climate and strengthening the West Virginia economy,“ Bailey’s statement said. He cites the state’s government finances as being in good shape, and the unemployment rate remaining below the national average, and said the group also will oppose those challenging its favored incumbents.
Pineville Lumber’s president, Everett Hannah, and his wife each gave $1,000 to the campaign of Governor Earl Ray Tomblin in April. Both also contributed to the Democrat last year, when he narrowly won a special gubernatorial election to complete the term of now-U.S. Senator Joe Manchin. The veteran former legislator’s GOP opponent then and now, with the office up for a full four years, is Morgantown businessman Bill Maloney.
Hannah and his family members previously contributed to And For The Sake Of The Kids, a 527 group that spent more than $3.6 million in 2004 to unseat then-Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw, a Democrat, and elect current Justice Brent Benjamin, a Republican, in his place. That group was chiefly bankrolled by Don Blankenship, the since-retired chief executive of Massey Energy. Blankenship’s spending prompted a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred Benjamin from hearing any cases involving Massey. Maloney’s campaign for governor, both in 2011 and this year, feature several political operatives from And For The Sake Of The Kids.
Stay the Course’s lawsuit also names Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ash as a defendant, to represent the 55 county prosecutors because they pursue any election law violations.