Democrats cry foul on state GOP’s use of funding loophole

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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COLUMBUS — Two statewide Republican candidates, well ahead in the polls, have used a loophole in state elections law to dump more than $100,000 worth of television airtime into the campaigns of more vulnerable Republican candidates.

It’s a loophole because state law prohibits statewide candidates from giving more than $2,500, in money or airtime, to another statewide campaign.

But the two candidates, Attorney General Betty Montgomery and Auditor Jim Petro, got around the limit by giving the airtime to the Ohio Republican Party, who in turn gave the money to GOP candidates like Joe Deters, who is in a tight race for state treasurer.

“This is outrageous conduct by someone who is supposed to enforce the laws,” said Richard Cordray, the Democratic nominee for attorney general.

Mr. Cordray and John Donofrio, who is opposing Mr. Deters, filed a complaint yesterday with the Ohio Elections Commission, accusing Ms. Montgomery of laundering the contributions.

Ms. Montgomery gave $85,000 in airtime last week to the Republican party, $35,000 of which ended up being spent on ads for Mr. Deters. Mr. Petro gave $25,000 to the party, an unknown amount of which ended up going to Mr. Deters’s campaign.

Spokesmen for Ms. Montgomery, Mr. Petro, and the Ohio GOP said the donations of airtime are legal.

“What we did, we did legally,” said party spokesman Gary Abernathy. “It’s not even an issue. It’s perfectly legal.”

Mr. Cordray said that the actions violate the letter and the spirit of the elections laws.

“Are Ohio’s elections laws so toothless that they cannot be enforced whtn the state’s top law enforcement officer launders money?” he said.

Jon Allison, the deputy communications director for the secretary of state’s office, said that it isn’t illegal for a candidate to donate large amounts of airtime to a party, or for a party to give that time to another candidate.

He said there is nothing illegal about the donating candidate directing the party to use the airtime for any particular candidate – a charge Mr. Petro and Ms. Montgomery deny.

But he did say it is a loophole that allows a wealthy candidate to get around campaign finance reforms passed in 1995, which put strict limits on candidate-to-candidate transfers.

“It would appear that is one way to get around the contribution limits,” he said.

“What’s the point of having contribution limits is all it takes is this to get around them?” said Sean Mentel, spokesman for Democrat Louis Strike, Mr. Petro’s opponent. “What’s the point if you can get around it this easily?”

Of the $85,000 Ms. Montgomery donated, $35,000 went to Ohio House of Representatives candidates. Another donation of $15,000 went to the campaign of Chief Justice Thomas Moyer.