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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

NH donations blur distinctions

Telegraph Editorial

In his ruling that Gov. Maggie Hassan violated state campaign finance laws by accepting money from a political action committee after she had signed up to officially become a candidate, New Hampshire Attorney General Joseph Foster noted that the New Hampshire Legislature hasn’t specifically limited donations from these special interest groups when they go to people who have not yet filed their candidacy papers.

In Hassan’s case, the ruling means she can keep only $1,000 of the $25,000 donation from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC because it came in to her campaign office one day after she had formally signed up to run. ...

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In his ruling that Gov. Maggie Hassan violated state campaign finance laws by accepting money from a political action committee after she had signed up to officially become a candidate, New Hampshire Attorney General Joseph Foster noted that the New Hampshire Legislature hasn’t specifically limited donations from these special interest groups when they go to people who have not yet filed their candidacy papers.

In Hassan’s case, the ruling means she can keep only $1,000 of the $25,000 donation from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC because it came in to her campaign office one day after she had formally signed up to run.

The governor’s campaign said she would return the other $24,000. Foster’s ruling also said the governor’s campaign could legally keep $10,000 checks from unions representing state workers and food and commercial union employees, which arrived before Hassan filed for office.

In other words, as the New Hampshire Union Leader’s Drew Cline tweeted out shortly after the ruling, “It’s a strange sort of logic that says a campaign contribution is perfectly legal at 11:59 p.m. one day, but illegal at 12 a.m. the next.”

That’s true. It’s also true that Hassan was taking advantage of a loophole that allows someone to set up a candidate PAC and then change it to a campaign committee when they officially file for office.

State Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn alerted the attorney general that the Hassan campaign was in violation of the law when Hassan accepted money after she had filed for re-election.

“Gov. 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 after the ruling.

The governor’s campaign was quick to point out that what they did was something previous governors have done and previous attorneys general have permitted, or chose not to restrict, as if that somehow made the wrong right.

Either way, there’s a simple fix: Cap the PACs by making them subject to the same restrictions as individuals, who are limited to $5,000 before a candidate files for office and $1,000 thereafter for the primary and general elections.

Horn’s statement calling Hassan’s ethics into question is not without merit, and it is worth noting that none of the three PACs covered in the ruling had registered with the Secretary of State’s office within the required window to do so, making all three organizations in violation of the law.

As troublesome as it is that Hassan accepted the $25,000 check in violation of campaign law, there’s something even more disturbing: The idea that the unions thought there was something to be gained from making the contribution at all.

This point – where money and politics converge – is also where the distinction between unions and corporations and the parties they support becomes blurred. Unions, historically, have given to Democrats, while corporations have tended to favor Republicans, but there are few amateurs when it comes to the buying and selling of influence, and any organization that makes contributions of this magnitude is seeking to buy access and, though access, influence.

Some in the North Country believe the electrical workers were attempting to sway the governor’s position on the Northern Pass transmission lines, a controversial proposal that would run through the state and carry power from Canada to Connecticut. Thus far, Hassan has said most of the line should be buried, but $25,000 is an amount that could, conceivably, change a politician’s mind, even if she only got to keep $1,000 of it.

It’s fair to ask whether, having shown a willingness to take the big bucks from unions (or corporations), the governor or any politician of either party is in a position to say no when the donor calls and asks for support on a certain issue.

It’s a safe bet they’re at least going to take the call.