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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Hassan ordered to return $24,000 after NH AG ruling

CONCORD – Attorney General Joe Foster, of Nashua, ordered Gov. Maggie Hassan’s re-election campaign to return $24,000 to a union’s political action committee because the money came in one day after she signed up for a second term.

But in a decision with implications for future elections, Foster said there was no limit on how much PACs could give to would-be candidates as long as the donations come in before the candidacy becomes official. ...

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CONCORD – Attorney General Joe Foster, of Nashua, ordered Gov. Maggie Hassan’s re-election campaign to return $24,000 to a union’s political action committee because the money came in one day after she signed up for a second term.

But in a decision with implications for future elections, Foster said there was no limit on how much PACs could give to would-be candidates as long as the donations come in before the candidacy becomes official.

“Because the Legislature has chosen only to limit contributions by persons, and not PACS, such PAC to candidate committee contributions during this period have no statutory limitation,” Foster wrote in response to a complaint from Republican State Chairwoman Jennifer Horn, of Nashua.

Foster said Hassan had to give back all but $1,000 of a $25,000 check from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC because it arrived at the campaign June 13, one day after Hassan signed up to run.

Hassan’s campaign could keep $10,000 checks from unions representing state workers and food and commercial union employees because they came in June 12.

Horn said Hassan was caught “red-handed” taking an illegal donation.

“Today’s ruling confirms that Governor Maggie Hassan broke the law by accepting an illegal campaign contribution from a special interest union PAC,” Horn said in a statement.

“Governor Hassan was caught red-handed trying to funnel tens of thousands of dollars in illegal donations into her campaign bank account, and her behavior raises serious ethical questions about her administration.”

Horn said the decision opens a loophole for future elections that the next elected governor and Legislature should close.

“It appears that Governor Hassan is the only official who has attempted to exploit this questionable exception and allow the corrupting influence of unlimited special interest donations to poison her campaign,” Horn said.

“It will be up to the next responsible Republican governor to close the ‘Hassan Special Interest Loophole’ and restore integrity to our campaign finance system.”

A Hassan campaign spokesman said it would comply with the AG’s decision and that the AG has confirmed the donations were consistent with past practice.

“Numerous past candidates going back nearly two decades have accepted similar contributions based on guidelines and advice from the attorney general’s office and the secretary of state’s office, and we appreciate the Department of Justice’s quick decision upholding past practice and precedent,” said Aaron Jacobs, Hassan’s campaign press secretary.

“While all of the contributions were issued before the deadline, we will return the funds that were physically delivered after the deadline in line with the Department of Justice’s guidance. The governor would welcome the Legislature’s engagement in efforts to clarify New Hampshire’s campaign finance laws.”

In 2002, then-Attorney General Phil McLaughlin advised Secretary of State Bill Gardner that it wasn’t his office’s role to “penalize conduct that a reasonable reading of the statute allows.”

As several past governors have done, Hassan took advantage of a legal loophole, setting up a candidate PAC and then changing it to a candidate committee on the day she filed for office.

This allows people to take $5,000 in donations from individuals until they sign up, and then $1,000 apiece from the same person for each of the primary and general elections.

These limits are only in place for those who decline to comply with voluntary campaign spending limits.

Foster’s predecessors have ruled there is no limit to how much a PAC can give to a candidate who agrees to the spending limit. For the governor’s race, the limit is roughly $1.3 million for the primary and general elections.

Hassan and Republican candidate Walt Havenstein, of Alton, declined to abide by the spending limit.

In her complaint, Horn argued Hassan shouldn’t have been able to accept more than $5,000 from the PACs.

But Foster concluded the Legislature hasn’t specifically limited donations from these special interest groups.

Foster also ruled that all three union PACs in the matter violated state law by failing to register with the state within 24 hours of making their first political donation.

The electrical workers union signed up five days after giving Hassan’s campaign its check; the unions for state employees and commercial food workers turned their paperwork in four days after giving Hassan’s campaign the money.

Havenstein condemned Hassan’s actions.

“Maggie Hassan has just demolished the integrity of New Hampshire’s campaign finance rules for her own selfish political ends,” he said in a statement.

“In putting her own political career over the interests of the citizens of New Hampshire, she has paved the way for unlimited special interest contributions to swamp our elections. Having been caught with her hand in the cookie jar, she now has the gall to call for the Legislature to fix her mess.”

Havenstein said if he’s elected governor, he would sign legislation to apply the same limits on these PACs as exist for individual donations.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@KLandrigan).