NESHOBA COUNTY FAIR — Weeks after Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann’s campaign filed a complaint over discrepancies with his main opponent’s campaign donations, the state’s chief law enforcement official is still largely silent over what her office is doing about the allegation.
Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch said very little to reporters at the Neshoba County Fair on Wednesday about what her agency is doing with ongoing questions about how state Sen. Chris McDaniel is funding his campaign for lieutenant governor.
“We’re certainly reviewing everything, and everything is under investigation,” Fitch said. “We’re certainly looking at any violations that have been brought to us.”
When pressed if she meant her agency is actively investigating the GOP state senator, Fitch walked her comment back and clarified that neither McDaniel nor his campaign representatives were under active investigation.
The allegations against the Jones County legislator, in part, stem from a political action committee McDaniel created. A secretive Virginia dark-money nonprofit corporation sent $475,000 to the PAC, and the PAC funneled $465,000 of those funds to his campaign account.
State law limits corporate donations to $1,000 per year to a candidate or PAC, so the contribution appears to be $474,000 over the state’s legal limit.
After reporters and politicians raised questions about the discrepancy, McDaniel and the PAC eventually returned the money to the dark money group, and he shut down the PAC.
But, by his campaign’s own reporting, McDaniel’s now-defunct PAC did not return $15,000 of the over-state-limits money, and he has offered no substantive explanation for what happened to it.
McDaniel outright denied to the press on Wednesday that he violated any of the state’s campaign finance laws and rejected any notion that any campaign donations were unaccounted for.
“I’m not the treasurer, but that’s not accurate,” McDaniel told reporters about unaccounted money.
However, he appeared to tacitly acknowledge his campaign skirted the state law on accepting more than the legal limit from a corporation, but he believes the state law is unconstitutional.
The four-term senator said the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling declaring federal campaign caps on corporations unconstitutional could extend to similar caps on the state level.
“Just to avoid the protracted legal fight and have the money perhaps locked up in court for nine months, we sent it back,” McDaniel said. “There’s no crime they commited; there’s nothing wrong that’s been committed. It’s perfectly legitimate, it’s perfectly transparent.”
The questionable campaign finance report has emerged as an issue between the firebrand senator and Hosemann, but the question of how fervently prosecutors should enforce the law has boiled over to the attorney general’s race.
Fitch’s Democratic opponent, Greta Kemp Martin, called the attorney general’s muted response a “failure” and said if she were serving as the chief attorney for the state, she would have fast-tracked Hosemann’s complaint to the top of the agency’s agenda.
“I think that complaint filed by Lt. Gov. Hosemann should have been given priority,” Kemp Martin said. “There should have been an investigation. The AG is the only one with clear authority to enforce campaign finance laws.”
Mississippi’s campaign finance laws are a confusing, often conflicting patchwork that the Legislature has piece-mealed over the years into the state code books without providing explicit clarity for who can and cannot enforce the law.
As the state’s top law officer, Fitch runs the only state agency with clear authority to investigate and prosecute campaign finance violations.
At one point on Wednesday, Hosemann and Fitch near the storied Founder’s Square Pavilion passed by one another on the porch of one of the infamous cabins at the fairgrounds. But Hosemann, running for a second term, declined to address if he thought Fitch’s office was doing enough to investigate his own complaint.
Instead, he warned if prosecutors allowed McDaniel’s actions with campaign donations to go unchecked, it could be a precursor that future candidates would disregard other state laws.
“In the future, every time you have a candidate, you don’t know who bought them off,” Hosemann said. “That’s not the law, and I’m going to be surprised if there are not clarifications early in the (legislative) session about campaign finance reform.”