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WV Supreme Court sides with Benjamin, Wooton on public campaign financing

TOM HINDMAN | Gazette-Mail photos
Robert M. Bastress argues Wednesday before the West Virginia Supreme Court that candidate William R. Wooton should retain close to $500,000 in public campaign financing. The court sided with Wooton and sitting Justice Brent Benjamin, awarding them the financing after a challenge from candidate Beth Walker.
Bastress (standing) said of Supreme Court race challenger Beth Walker, “The decision to fund Wooton placed no restraints whatsoever on Ms. Walker’s ability to campaign.”

Less than two-and-a-half hours after they heard two hours of oral arguments Wednesday, acting West Virginia Supreme Court justices overturned lower court rulings and upheld the awarding of nearly $500,000 each in public campaign financing to Supreme Court candidates Brent Benjamin and Bill Wooton.

Citing the need to expedite the matter in advance of the May 10 judicial elections, the high court issued the order reversing the circuit court rulings and upholding public campaign financing for the two candidates, with opinions to follow “in due course.”

During the hearings earlier Wednesday, the acting justices repeatedly raised questions about whether it would be arbitrary and capricious to deny the candidates public campaign financing because of procedural errors they made in filing for the funding.

“To me, it’s like putting someone in the state penitentiary for 10 years for petit larceny,” acting Chief Justice Thomas Keadle said of lawsuits filed by challenger Beth Walker to disqualify Justice Brent Benjamin and Beckley lawyer Bill Wooton from receiving funding under the new Supreme Court public campaign financing law.

Acting Justice John Hatcher seemed to pick up on the theme, asking, “If I postmark my last expenditure report a day late but I win the election, am I disqualified from office?”

However, Pittsburgh attorney Thomas Ryan, representing Walker, argued before the court that it is critical to follow the letter of the law, even to the extent that it would require revoking campaign financing for Benjamin and Wooton.

“This is an important program for the state. This is an important program for this court,” he said. “It must be done right. It must be done beyond reproach.”

Walker challenged public campaign financing for both candidates, contending that they missed the deadline for filing a certificate for funding with the State Election Commission.

Additionally, Walker contended that Benjamin missed a deadline for filing an exploratory campaign financing report that predated his decision to seek public financing, and that some of the contributions needed to qualify for public financing lacked proper signatures.

Attorneys for Benjamin, Wooton and the SEC argued that the commission has discretion to give candidates leeway on deadlines that exist only in legislative rule and not in the public financing law itself.

“There’s simply no reason for the rule to create an exceedingly short deadline of two days,” attorney Bob Bastress, representing Wooton, said of the deadline for filing certification for public financing.

Acting Justice Tom Evans noted that filing late would hurt only the candidate, by delaying the time he or she receives the public financing, commenting, “If you file it 15 or 20 days after you can or should, the candidate punishes himself.”

However, Ryan said strict deadlines are critical to the integrity of the program, telling the court, “It is a dangerous path to go down for the secretary of state, with the State Election Commission, to have discretion to enforce these deadlines. It’s the appearance of favoritism.”

Attorneys for Benjamin and Wooton also challenged the claim that Walker’s campaign — which is strongly backed by business and insurance interests — will be adversely affected if the challengers received public financing.

“She is as free as ever to promote her candidacy,” Bastress said. “The decision to fund Wooton placed no restraints whatsoever on Ms. Walker’s ability to campaign.”

Spencer Elliott, attorney for the SEC, said that if the commission is obligated to follow a strict construct of the law, with no room for discretion, then Walker’s challenge never should have gotten to circuit court — she missed the deadline to file challenges of public campaign financing applications with the election commission.

“If the rule is, ‘late is late,’ it has to be consistent, and it wasn’t in the circuit court order,” Elliott said.

Ryan argued that Walker had no choice but to file the challenges after the deadline, since the other candidates’ filings for certification also missed their deadlines.

Walker’s campaign raised additional grounds to disqualify Benjamin, including that about 190 of his qualifying contributions were electronic transfers using PayPal and lacked accompanying signatures required under the law.

However, Benjamin attorney Jonathan Marshall cited a state law that permits electronic signatures on official documents.

“The law is, if a law requires a signature, an electronic signature satisfies that requirement,” Marshall said, elaborating that, under the law, an electronic signature is anything that verifies the identity of the sender, such as a PayPal account.

“What this boils down to is the [SEC] used its discretion to interpret this Act,” Marshall said of the election commission’s unanimous votes to certify campaign financing for Benjamin and Wooton.

Ryan argued that giving the SEC discretion to interpret the public campaign financing law would destroy the integrity of the program.

“This is a program to restore integrity and ensure fairness in judicial elections,” he said. “To participate in the program, you must follow the rules.”

Afterward, Wooton campaign manager Joe Safety said he was pleased with the quick action of the court.

“We are very pleased with the prompt decision of the court,” Safety said. “We are disappointed that our opponent hired attorneys from an out-of-state international law firm to file the complaint against our campaign. It forced us to waste valuable time defending ourselves against what were frivolous allegations.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for what is right and an example of how well our system of justice works.”

Meanwhile, Walker campaign director Joe Reidy commented, “Beth Walker certainly respects the decision of the court, but we will make no apologies for standing up for the rule of law and the taxpayers in filing a challenge to them accessing the money.”

As a party in the case, Benjamin recused himself, as did the four other sitting justices. A panel of circuit court and senior status judges were appointed to hear the cases.

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

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