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Elections panel OKs public campaign financing for WV justice Benjamin

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail file photo
Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin

Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin’s re-election campaign has been certified for a total of $525,000 of public campaign financing, pending a possible legal challenge by one of his opponents.

The State Election Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved public financing for the Benjamin campaign, over objections from representatives from the campaign of Beth Walker, who raised a technicality over whether the Benjamin campaign had missed a deadline to file a report on contributions.

Afterward, Walker campaign representative Kent Gates suggested the campaign may appeal the certification decision to circuit court.

“Obviously, the Walker campaign has an attorney, and we will explore our options,” said Gates, who also is a spokesman and consultant for Senate President Bill Cole’s gubernatorial campaign.

After the vote, Benjamin campaign representative Anne Charnock read a statement from Benjamin, stating, “In creating the Public Campaign Finance program, the Legislature recognized that increasing expensive judicial elections funded by high-dollar interests have created a concern among voters that such interests have too much influence in our judicial system.”

He added, “The Public Campaign Finance program not only enhances public confidence in the fairness and impartiality of our courts, it also ensures that the West Virginian who is able to give just a single dollar knows that his or her participation in the selection process is just as important as the $1,000 given by a politically connected insider, special interest or out-of-state group.”

Under the law, in order to qualify for public financing, a candidate must raise at least $35,000 from at least 500 contributors, with maximum contributions of $100. Benjamin met those requirements, even though the Walker campaign challenged every contributor to Benjamin.

“In rejecting every such challenge, this commission signaled to every West Virginia voter that their voice matters,” Benjamin said in the statement.

Last week, the SEC certified public campaign financing for a second Supreme Court candidate, Beckley lawyer Bill Wooton, over objections from the Walker campaign, who contended Wooton should be disqualified for allegedly filing his application for certification a day late.

Walker’s representatives argued Wednesday that Benjamin had failed to submit a financial report for the exploratory period when he was a pre-candidate for the court.

However, the SEC determined that a glitch in the electronic reporting system made it impossible for the Benjamin campaign to file the report electronically after he opted to pursue public financing, and last week granted an exemption to allow the campaign to file a paper copy of the form.

Charnock noted that state election law did not anticipate a situation where a Supreme Court candidate would begin an exploratory campaign as a traditional candidate, and then opt to pursue public campaign financing.

“The statute is clearly not written for what the facts are — a candidate who started out with no intention of public financing,” Charnock said.

Meanwhile, Gates had a six-page letter from Pittsburgh attorney Thomas Ryan entered into the SEC record. The letter reiterated that the Benjamin campaign should not be certified for public financing because the financial report was not filed in a timely manner.

Asked if the SEC challenge and potential circuit court appeal were efforts to obstruct the Benjamin campaign in the short, three-month campaign cycle to the May 10 nonpartisan judicial elections, Gates said, “I’m just following the process the Legislature has established. The law needs to be followed and there are serious questions whether the law has been followed here.”

Benjamin and Wooton become the second and third Supreme Court candidates to run publicly financed campaigns for state Supreme Court. Justice Allen Loughry was the first, when the public financing law was a pilot project, and won election to the high court in 2012.

Last week, Gates asked that the SEC not release funds to Wooton, pending a possible court appeal. However, commissioners determined the public campaign financing law requires release of the funds immediately after a candidate is certified.

Walker, a Morgantown lawyer, ran unsuccessfully for the Supreme Court in 2008 as a Republican. Other candidates for the court are former Supreme Court justice and state attorney general Darrell McGraw and Clay lawyer Wayne King.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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