What can you say about political contributions?

by Lynne W. Jeter

Published: May 31,1999

Political contributions are the hot potatoes of 1999 for a number of Mississippi candidates and businesses. Nobody wants to say much about it, even though a new law now requires reports.

“The Secretary of State’s office passed a new campaign finance law, over the governor’s veto, earlier this year because we believe the public has the right to know who is financing the increasingly costly campaigns for statewide office,” said David Blount, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office. “I’m happy the new law was on the books before this year’s campaigns started up. More and more people around the state are aware that these reports are being filed and that has generated more interest at the local and state levels.”

For four months ending April 30, former congressman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Parker led the fundraising race with $518,979 reported to the Secretary of State’s office. Lt. Governor Ronnie Musgrove led fundraising for the Democratic side with $203,727.

But when supporters were chosen at random to call about political contributions, many were unavailable. For instance, The Cypress Company in Oxford contributed $1,000 to Mike Parker’s campaign. But the company cannot be reached by phone. There’s not even a listing. When Kevin Kellum, financial director for the Parker campaign, was asked for the phone number, he declined to give it.

When Jackson Iron and Metal was contacted about a $1,000 contribution to Ronnie Musgrove’s campaign, the receptionist said, after a five-minute wait on hold, that everyone was too busy to talk and she promptly hung up the phone without asking for a message. Scott Darling, financial director for the Musgrove campaign, was unavailable for comment.

Several other contributors for various candidates could not be reached by the Mississippi Business Journal. Phone numbers were not available via phone book or directory assistance.

Dr. Robert Albritton, chairman of the political science department at the University of Mississippi, said not-quite-legitimate corporations have been used at every level in the U.S. political campaign process to funnel money to candidates.

“In 1972, when I worked in Illinois state government during the gubernatorial election, campaign contributions limits were set for organizations,” he said. “The incumbent governor’s campaign set up dummy organizations. He ended up losing the election and the guy who co-signed all the loans ate the whole thing. The point was, each corporation was a dummy organization designed to be in existence only for the purpose of taking out a loan and making a contribution when in fact it was well over a million dollars of the co-signer’s money.”

Albritton said he is not suggesting that’s true in this case, but added that “it’s just an example of my experience, and if I ran into the same type of situation, I would immediately begin to think of that.”

Matt Eichelberger, financial director of the campaign for Republican hopeful Eddie Briggs, said he’s not surprised.

“It’s not common to put the actual phone number on the (state-required) report itself, but it’s usually a pretty common practice for contributors to have phone numbers,” he said. “If they’re big enough contributors to give $1,000, they should have a phone number. It does look a little strange.”

The Briggs campaign reported $442,949 on May 10. Last week, a fundraising reception was held at the home of J.L. Holloway, with heavy-hitters that included Jim Barksdale, ex-CEO of Netscape, Tom Barksdale, J. Kelley Williams, CEO and chairman of ChemFirst, Inc., and MCI WorldCom chief Bernie Ebbers. Contributions routed through corporations would be reflected on the June 10 report.

“If you give more than $200 in a year to a candidate or a political committee, then your name will show up on a report,” said Blount. “Businesses should be aware of that.”

Corporate contributions to a candidate or political committee cannot exceed $1,000, according to the new law.

“But there are no limits on individual contributions, but there are limits on the amount of money a corporation can give,” Blount said.

Even with laws on the books, effective campaign finance reform is almost impossible without limiting expenses, Albritton said.

“We have a passion for campaign finance reform and I am very sympathetic to that,” he said. “However, people are too intelligent and can think up ways to evade campaign laws. We’ll never have effective campaign finance reform unless we can limit expenditures, and we would need a constitutional amendment to overturn Buckley v. Valeo.”

In Buckley v. Valeo (1975), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress cannot limit campaign spending by candidates because it would be an abridgement of free speech.

“In this case, Buckley was William Buckley’s brother and the point argued was that if a rich person has millions of dollars, he ought to be able to spend it however he wants,” he said.

All candidates and political committees file reports by certain deadlines throughout the year up until the elections. The first deadline, for all activity from Jan. 1 to April 30, was May 10. The next deadline is June 10, Blount said.

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