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Lawmaker: Criminal penalties for illegal campaign coordination

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PHOENIX – When Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery accused Attorney General Tom Horne of illegally coordinating his campaign with a supposedly independent expenditure group, state law restricted him to seeking civil penalties.

Prompted by that, a state lawmaker wants to give officials the power to not only fine those found guilty of such a violation but also send them to jail.

“We should be able to go after them and go after them hard,” said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, author of SB 1195.

The measure would make it a Class 5 felony to knowingly give or receive a contribution of at least $25,000 that is falsely characterized as an independent expediture.

The civil penalty for such a violation is a fine equal to triple the cost of whatever campaign material was distributed using the illicit contribution.

Gallardo’s bill was assigned to the Elections and Judiciary committees but had yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

After a 14-month investigation, Montgomery accused Horne last October of improperly coordinating with the head of <>

the group Business Leaders of Arizona during the 2010 campaign. A hearing on the charges is scheduled for late February, and Montgomery has said he is seeking a fine of more than $500,000 from Horne.

Gallardo said Montgomery should have had the option of seeking criminal charges.

“The county attorney stood up and said, ‘I have the top law enforcement officer in the state of Arizona intentionally violating campaign finance laws. However, I can’t prosecute him,’” Gallardo said. “If he’s going to conduct a criminal investigation that lasts 14 months and however doesn’t have the ability to prosecute, that’s the problem.”

Montgomery, who has urged lawmakers to toughen campaign finance laws, said that he was glad to see the legislation introduced.

“The bill reflects a shared interest in holding people accountable for intentional conduct and prescribing penalties commensurate with the degree of harm caused to our campaign finance system,” he said in an emailed statement.

Gallardo said he set the minimum amount of contributions at $25,000 in order to target what he called the most egregious cases.

“I don’t want to go after those little school board candidates that do a $1,500 or $5,000 independent expenditure,” he said. “Those are folks that, for the most part, may not understand what they’re doing.”

David Berman, a senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said that the stiffer penalties would likely be effective.

“The existing civil penalties for this type of campaign violation are no deterrent,” Berman wrote in an email.

Fred Solop, a professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University, said that while such a law may prove an effective deterrent, the fact that it’s being proposed doesn’t reflect well on the system.

“It’s unfortunate, at the same time, that we have to move to these kind of penalties to force people to abide by disclosure laws,” he said in a phone interview. “You would hope that there’s an ethical principle that people would abide by.”