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Political Spending Law Ignored

There ought to be a law, you may have said while perusing reports of independent organization expenditures in West Virginia elections this year.

After all, knowing that “X” group spent money in a race involving “A” candidate is of limited use without being told whether the funds were spent to support or oppose the person.

That’s how much of the independent expenditure information on West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant’s website is presented, with dollar amounts and candidates’ names but without notes on support or opposition. You may have thought as I did that there ought to be a law requiring organizations to report whether they supported or opposed specific candidates.

There is. It just wasn’t being observed until a few days before the election Tuesday.

The good news is that the law was being ignored in bipartisan fashion. Neither groups supporting Democrats nor those backing Republicans were being required to comply. Hence, people going to the website were able to look at reports showing only that a Charleston organization called Honest West Virginians had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legislative candidates and that the College Republican National Committee of Washington had spent $35,667 on “Democratic candidates.”

Obviously, the CRNC wasn’t supporting the Democrats. Less obvious, however, was that Honest West Virginians was fighting for Democrats and against Republicans. Neither of the groups’ reports showed that.

There is a law requiring them to do so. It stipulates, in part, that organizations independent of candidates but spending money to influence elections must report “The elections to which the independent expenditure pertain, the names, if known, of the candidates referred to or to be referred to therein, whether the expenditure is intended to support or oppose the identified candidates and the amount of the total expenditure …” Reporting guidelines on the secretary of state’s website include that requirement.

Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? Apparently very few people bothered to read the rules before throwing money at legislative races in West Virginia. And for a few weeks, at least, no one in the secretary of state’s office was checking to ensure the law was obeyed.

Let’s be clear: Some independent organizations did follow the rules. They included the W.Va. Republican Executive Committee, W.Va. Troopers Association, W.Va. Chamber of Commerce, W.Va. Home Owners’ Alliance Political Action Committee, W.Va. Coal Association, W.Va. Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse and House Legislative Committee. Each and every one of their expenditures was labeled with the candidate’s name and whether he or she was supported or opposed.

But the really big spenders, both Democrat and Republican, complied only part of the time – or not at all. They included Honest West Virginians, Protect West Virginia, Moving WV?Forward and Grow WV?Inc.

And there’s a clue about what went wrong. A close look at the forms supplied by the secretary of state’s office for reporting expenditures shows one, revised in August, does not specifically contain check-off boxes for whether candidates were supported or opposed.

Another form, revised in October, includes “for” and “against” boxes to be checked.

When I called him Friday, Jake Glance, spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said he hadn’t heard about the problem previously. After looking into it, he let me know the office will contact independent spending organizations that filed incomplete reports. They will be told to file corrected versions, he noted, adding in an email message that “the ultimate goal is to get the report corrected and have accurate information available to the public.”

Well, yes. But it would have been nice if the accurate information had been available before the election. And it wasn’t as if the secretary of state’s office didn’t have plenty of time to enforce the rules:?The earliest incomplete report I found was filed on April 24.

Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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