A challenger for the Southern District Public Service Commission seat has filed ethics complaints against incumbent Dane Maxwell, claiming he violated campaign finance laws.

Maxwell says the complaints are “dirty campaigning” from a desperate candidate, and that his campaign has returned any improper donations and amended its reporting where necessary.

Republican candidate Wayne Carr claims Maxwell has accepted $18,000 in illegal contributions from PSC-regulated utilities or affiliates and failed to report thousands in campaign spending. He said Maxwell is beholden to large companies buying up small water systems in Mississippi, then asking the PSC to allow large rate increases.

“This is not right for the ratepayers,” Carr said. “This is not transparency.”

Maxwell said much of Carr’s claims are bogus – that three companies he claims fall under a prohibition on donations are not regulated utilities. Maxwell said his campaign unknowingly accepted other improper donations and is returning the money – including $4,000 of a $5,000 donation from a corporation. Mississippi campaign laws limit corporate donations to $1,000 a year. Maxwell said the company failed to note it was a corporation when it made the contribution.

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Maxwell said he has a CPA firm that manages his campaign finances and, “I can’t even write a check out of that account.” He said that when Carr “started slinging mud” about his finances, he had the CPA firm go back through the reports, and consulted with the secretary of state’s office. He said his campaign is returning any improper donations and correcting its reporting.

Maxwell said stringent campaign finance laws for PSC commissioner candidates – emplaced by state lawmakers years ago after past scandal and corruption with the utility regulating authority – provide challenges.

“That’s why I hire a company to do it,” Maxwell said. “We have the strictest laws of any elected officials. We try to vet everything that comes in, but when people send this money to the CPA firm and they can’t determine if it’s associated or not – they generally just return it. Some of these people don’t understand the regulations. They send us money, and then we return it. Our laws are very strict.

“… This is a last-minute desperate attempt to get some attention to his campaign,” Maxwell said. “I’m a Christian conservative. I’m not going to get into negative campaigning and not going to do that to a fellow Republican. It’s disgraceful.”

Carr claims Maxwell failed for months to report thousands in spending for campaign ads on Coast Transit Authority buses. He said the buses have been rolling across the Coast with Maxwell ads on them since mid-May, but the spending did not show up in Maxwell’s June or July finance reports filed with the secretary of state. He noted that Maxwell posted about the bus ads in June social media posts.

Maxwell said the spending will be listed on his campaign finance report due Tuesday – the final report before the Aug. 8 Republican primary.

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“Sometimes when you pay for something you don’t get the invoice right away,” Maxwell said. “Everything will be in the filings.”

There have been other questions about PSC candidate campaign finances this election cycle. The Magnolia Tribune in June questioned a donation to PSC Commissioner Brandon Presley – now a gubernatorial candidate – from a regulated utility. Presley returned the $500 donation. The publication also questioned donations to Presley and Central District PSC Commissioner Brent Bailey from a law firm that represents the PSC, with its fees paid by Entergy, a regulated power company.

Both Bailey and Presley have denied the contributions fall under the PSC campaign finance prohibition.

Carr filed complaints with the state Ethics Commission. But the commission has recently said it lacks clear authority to investigate or enforce campaign finance laws.

Mississippi’s campaign finance laws and reporting requirements are weak, and violations are almost never investigated or prosecuted.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.