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Clean Elections enforcement unchanged by new law

Now that SB1344 has taken effect, I write to announce that the Clean Elections Commission will continue its mission without change. Popular wisdom among election-law commentators asserts that the bill cut back on the commission’s duties. That view is wrong. The Legislature did not have the votes to overturn the judgment of Arizona citizens that the commission should have the right to investigate, and if necessary assess penalties, for any violation of the Clean Elections Act. The Act calls for stiffer penalties for violations of reporting requirements and contribution limits, for all legislative and statewide candidates, “participating” or not.

Without the votes, the Legislature amended the bill in February to have it restrict to the secretary of state and the attorney general any investigations relating to allegations of violations of the “article” in which the statute appears, which does not include the Clean Elections Act. But the Clean Elections Commission has never sought to enforce any “article” other than the Clean Elections Act, and the bill as amended neither purports to stop the commission from enforcing the Clean Elections Act, nor could it.

The commission remains free to investigate complaints of Clean Elections Act violations, even complaints that also allege violations of another “article” that can be investigated by other officials. The commission is the only body that can impose the stiffer penalties (ranging from daily fines to removal or disqualification in extreme cases) specified in the Clean Elections Act. The commission will seek to cooperate and coordinate with other agencies, if they are willing, but it will investigate without waiting when required.

The sorry example of the investigation into allegations made against Attorney General Tom Horne in the wake of the 2010 election demonstrate the value of an independent agency investigating campaign violations. The secretary of state sought to avoid referring a complaint against the AG to the AG, then a court disapproved the secretary’s self-help measures, then the AG’s office chose the investigator, then an independent hearing officer refused to find cause, then the appointed county prosecutor refused to follow the hearing officer’s recommendation. All of that caused allegations of political cronyism or payback, depending on which side talks about which decision.

But one fact is undeniable: Here we stand in 2014, nearly four years later, with an election looming, and voters have no resolution of the allegations and must vote on whether our chief law enforcement officer should be re-elected without knowing whether he broke the law.

Such a failure of the system would never have happened had the complaint been brought before the Clean Elections Commission. Professional staff members investigate quickly and fairly, and the five commissioners are balanced in party affiliation (now two Republicans, two Democrats, and one independent). Staff and the commissioners alike share a strong desire to “do good,” regardless of party or politics. The commission’s strong tradition of non-partisanship and collegiality has persisted.

Arizona is one of only eight U.S. states that do not have a full-fledged ethics commission with broad authority to enforce campaign laws, conflict-of-interest statutes, and political ethics rules. Perhaps the Arizona Legislature likes it that way, but the public interest in unbiased and swift justice requires that we should be expanding the duties of the Clean Elections Commission, not fending off efforts to constrain them.

Until the Legislature gets serious about closing loopholes in ethics statutes and cutting off conflicts-of-interest and delays in enforcement, or until the public again puts a stop to self-serving enforcement procedures, the Clean Elections Commission will continue to do its part, by enforcing rules within its limited jurisdiction, when asked to do so by complainants, quickly and fairly.

— Louis Hoffman has served as a Clean Elections commissioner since 2009 and drafted the Clean Elections Act for the citizens’ committee that urged its passage in 1998.

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