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Lawsuit alleges Clean Elections illegally using money

The Goldwater Institute is suing the state’s Clean Elections system, alleging it is illegally using money earmarked for voter education on advertising and lobbying to oppose a possible referendum aimed at ending public financing of political candidates.

The lawsuit, filed today by the conservative think tank on behalf of the ballot committee, No Taxpayer Money for Politicians, is the second courtroom go-round this year for critics and advocates of Arizona’s Citizens Clean Election Commission.

A judge last month struck a 2012 ballot measure, SCR1025, in the first law suit. The ballot measure would have asked voters to repeal the use of public money for political campaigns, effectively killing the Arizona Citizens Clean Election Commission.

And while former lawmaker Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican who is chairman of the ballot committee, said a new corrected measure will likely end up on the ballot in 2012, the new lawsuit is keeping in spirit with his promise to remain aggressive in ending publicly funded campaigns.

The lawsuit alleges that the commission is limited to spending 10 percent of its budget on voter education, which is defined as publishing an election education guide and sponsoring candidate debates.

The committee is asking the court to declare that the commission is illegally using the money in an attempt to influence an election. The committee is also asking the court to stop the “illegal conduct” and order the commission to repay the money.

Carrie Ann Sitren, an attorney with the Goldwater Institute, said the commission spent millions of dollars promoting itself and lobbying to defeat SCR1025 at the Legislature.

Examples in the lawsuit include $5.5 million to the firm Moses Anshell since July 2008 to develop an annual education plan and marketing plan, and $78,000 to Williams and Associates, a lobbying firm. The group also worked closely with the Arizona Advocacy Network Foundation, to oppose SCR1025 at the Legislature.

The foundation was the plaintiff in the first lawsuit.

The commission’s executive director, Todd Lang, said lobbying is allowed and a proper function of the commission.

“What’s so odd about this lawsuit is they seem to be taking the fact that we work with folks on legislative action and it somehow has any relationship with a ballot initiative,” Lang said. “It seems they resent the fact we emphasize speech and provide information to the Legislature regarding how Clean Elections works, how it can be improved and why repealing it would be a bad idea.”

Lang said statutes governing the commission have a 10-percent cap on administrative and enforcement costs, but not on voter education.

He said that in election years the commission does spend in excess of 10 percent on voter education in election years because it has to spend on the candidate statement guide, which costs several million dollars itself.

“Their goal is to simply shut down our education program,” Lang said.

Sitren said the commission can’t spend money on self promotion or lobbying because it doesn’t have the authority to do that in statute.

“In lobbying activities there are going to be taxpayers on both sides so the commission shouldn’t be using taxpayer dollars to lobby against some taxpayers, and that’s exactly what their trying to do here, even though the commission may be calling it permissible lobbying or voter education,” Sitren said.

Lawmakers placed SCR1025 on the ballot this year with near-unanimous support of Republicans, but proponents of the commission and officials from Tucson, which has its own public financing system for municipal candidates, challenged it in court.

Judge Dean Fink of Maricopa County Superior Court agreed with the plaintiffs that the proposed constitutional amendment violated the single-subject requirement of ballot measures because it would have swept the money in Tucson’s system into the state coffers.

Paton said the planned corrected version of the measure will exclude Tucson.

Voters in 1998 approved the creation of Clean Elections, which is primarily funded by a 10-percent surcharge on all civil and criminal fines levied in Arizona.

Supporters of public financing contend that the system dilutes the influence of powerful special interests, while opponents claim it violates the rights of privately funded candidates and helps elect fringe and highly partisan candidates.

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