In his bid for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Chris McDaniel has thumbed his nose at Mississippi’s campaign finance laws, and as the Aug. 8 Republican primary nears, it appears nothing will come of it.
No charges. No fines. No reprimand. No real investigation. No enforcement.
Attorney General Lynn Fitch, the only state official with clear authority to enforce campaign finance laws, has shown little interest in doing so during her first term in office. Incumbent Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has filed complaints against McDaniel with Fitch, but the AG office’s only comment so far, three months ago, was: “We are reviewing it.”
The list of McDaniel’s legally questionable maneuvers with campaign money is lengthy. But here are a couple of big points for starters:
A state PAC McDaniel created received $475,000 from a secretive Virginia dark-money nonprofit corporation. His PAC then funneled $465,000 of it to his campaign.
State law limits such corporate donations to $1,000 a year to a candidate or PAC. So the donation was $474,000 over the legal limit.
McDaniel’s PAC initially hid some of these transactions with incomplete, inaccurate reporting to the secretary of state’s office. But eventually, after questions from Mississippi Today, he first chalked it up to “clerical errors.”
Then, eventually, McDaniel said Mississippi’s campaign finance laws are improper but he doesn’t have time to mount a legal challenge, so his campaign returned the money to his PAC. McDaniel said his PAC then returned the money to the dark money group, and he shut down the PAC.
But, by his own reporting, McDaniel’s defunct PAC did not return $15,000 of the over-state-limits money, and has offered no accounting for what happened to it.
More recently, Wisconsin-based political consultant Thomas Datwyler, who McDaniel’s campaign listed as its treasurer, has created a Mississippi PAC that is running ads against Hosemann. Datwyler has a history of running afoul of Federal Election Commission campaign finance rules with several congressional candidates.
McDaniel’s campaign finance reports — which are supposed to provide the public an accounting of who is financing his election bid — have defied logic and math. After filing amended, amended-amended and termination-amended reports for his campaign, it’s still unclear how much money he has raised for his campaign.
Oddly, McDaniel during his long tenure as a state senator loudly championed stricter campaign finance laws and transparency for the public on sources of political money. But his PAC and campaign finances mark the largest secret and over the legal limit donation to a state campaign in Mississippi.
When asked why the nonprofit American Exceptionalism Institute of Virginia was giving him nearly half a million dollars and what its interest in Mississippi’s lieutenant governor is, McDaniel did not respond. AEI is a dark money nonprofit that has been noted for providing millions in secretly sourced money to candidates in Nevada and Georgia, including former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler. Mississippi Today was unable to reach anyone with AEI and there is very little information about the group online.
As with past Mississippi campaign finance complaints, the secretary of state’s office and ethics commission say they have no clear investigative or enforcement authority over campaign finances.
Mississippi’s campaign finance laws are aimed at providing transparency to the voting public and limiting the corrosive influence of big money in politics. But the laws are a confusing, often conflicting patchwork that have been piece-mealed over years by the Legislature into the state code books without providing clear authority. The secretary of state’s office is responsible for receiving campaign finance reports, but serves mainly as a repository, with no real investigative or enforcement authority. The Ethics Commission, after some changes to laws in recent years, appears to have some authority, but it’s really unclear.
Fitch, as the state’s top law officer, runs the only state agency with clear authority to investigate and prosecute campaign finance violations. It appears at this point, despite the egregious violations McDaniel’s campaign is accused of, Fitch is not going to get involved.
If that’s the case, one wonders how her office could ever in the future look into or prosecute any other reported campaign violation. That would, understandably, draw accusations of selective prosecution.
Mississippi already has weak campaign finance laws, with weak penalties for violating them. Given the state’s lack of enforcement of these laws — and usually a failure to even investigate complaints — Mississippi might as well have no campaign finance laws at all.