Updated: February 14, 2011 at 12:00 am
The race for mayor took a detour Monday when candidate Brian Bahr filed a complaint over corporate contributions that competitors Steve Bach and Richard Skorman received last month.
“The law in this matter is clear,” says the complaint Bahr’s campaign filed with City Attorney Patricia Kelly and City Clerk Kathryn Young. “The corporate contributions received by Mr. Skorman and Mr. Bach are illegal and should be disallowed under the law.”
For years, elected officials and candidates for public office have collected corporate contributions with the understanding they were OK.
Last month, Young told mayoral and City Council candidates that corporate contributions were permitted, two people at a candidate session said.
But last week, Young reversed course, saying that corporations are prohibited from making contributions directly to candidates or candidate committees.
Her comments created confusion among candidates and baffled officials at City Hall.
“I am NOT HAPPY (and you all know I don’t say this very often) to find out that I have been wrong for eight years (and three election cycles) and that I have given bad advice to other candidates,” Councilman Scott Hente said in an e-mail obtained by The Gazette.
The city attorney’s office issued an opinion to council that agreed with Young that candidates are prohibited from taking corporate contributions.
Even though past and present candidates for office have accepted corporate contributions and reported them in campaign filings, Young said it wasn’t her job but the public’s to scrutinize campaign finance reports to determine whether the law was being followed.
“In the last two days I have received many inquires as to why I have not scrutinized the finance forms and notified candidates as to any errors,” Young said Thursday in an e-mail to the mayor and council members.
“The (Fair Campaign Practices Act) specifically identifies my duties when it comes to finance forms, and I have done all I can to develop a filing and indexing system, make the forms available for the public, see that they are filed, and maintain copies,” she wrote in the e-mail, which was obtained under an open-records request. “I have made myself available to guide people through the statutes and to answer questions regarding campaign finance.”
Bahr’s campaign manager disagrees, saying Young has “refused” to enforce the law. Bahr is asking for an “immediate review” of campaign finance statements filed by Bach and Skorman.
“We are filing a complaint asking the city clerk to do her job and to enforce the rule of law to ensure a fair playing field for all the candidates,” said Kyle Fisk, Bahr’s campaign manager.
“From everything we’ve heard, until a formal complaint is filed, there’s no one going to look into the fact that there are two candidates in this race who have filed campaign finance reports with corporate contributions on them,” he said.
Laura Carno, Bach’s chief of staff, said Bach has complied with the law as it’s been laid out by the City Clerk’s Office.
“Based on the official mayoral package that we picked up, corporate contributions are allowed. Based on the past practices of the city, corporate contributions have been taken in the majority of the races,” she said.
But Bach would “absolutely” return his corporate contributions “if there is a definitive, documented ruling that says all of this has been in error the whole time,” Carno said.
“We’re not looking to skirt the law, regardless of what anybody is accusing other candidates of doing,” she said.
Bahr’s campaign alerted the media to its complaint.
“I believe in the freedom of speech, and I believe that most campaign finance laws infringe on that right,” Bahr said in a statement.
“However, the rule of law must prevail,” he said. “It is illegal for any mayoral campaign to receive corporate contributions, and I am proud that my campaign is following the rules. I challenge citizens that believe that following the rule of law is important even when we don’t agree with it, to request Steve Bach and Richard Skorman to return their illegal corporate contributions. If we’re going to reform ‘politics as usual’ and build a strong economy, it starts with strong character and making sound moral decisions.”
Fisk said Bahr has refused offers of “thousands of dollars” in corporate contributions.
Other candidates also are steering clear of contributions from corporations.
“We have taken (zero) dollars from corporations,” Buddy Gilmore said last week on Facebook. “Just never want to be tied to the idea we might owe a company something.”