Monday, February 1, 2010

Corporate Campaign Donations - Right, Wrong or Indifferent?

As we all heard last week, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down what seemed to many to be an illogical decision regarding corporate campaign donations, which is now the law of the land and controlling law over lower court decisions and appeals.

I can understand the logic, although I don't necessarily agree with it. Corporations were seen as separate entities with a protected right of free speech, just like individuals. The Court felt that a corporation's free speech rights could also be expressed via donations of money to campaigns of candidates for elected office.

This ruling, of course, meant that the McCain-Feingold legislation proposing campaign finance reform is dead on the federal level. I think this ruling is a game-changer, and will take campaigning, particularly for state and federal elected offices, to a new high (or low) we've never seen before. It may mean that whoever can get the most money spent on them will win - essentially ensuring that elections can be bought.

I also think that whoever gets elected to office will be beholden to all kinds of special interest industries and companies who will most likely expect some return on their investment. Of course, adding insult to injury, they can probably deduct their donations from their corporate tax returns, too - so taxpayers will be underwriting this corporate courting of our elected officials.

We can change this on the state level by encouraging our elected state reps to introduce and pass legislation governing campaigns in state and local campaigns. However, since that's not yet the case - corporations are free to write and fund ads that support any candidate's campaign.

Ironically, this ruling may impact the litigation filed last year by J.P. Mascaro & Sons against the winners of the fall 2009 election for the Lower Providence Board of Supervisors, Colleen Eckman and Don Thomas. 

To recap, during that campaign, Colleen and Don and their committees allegedly (I'm going to use 'allegedly' a lot here folks, there's a lot of litigation and counter-litigation flying around in this case) issued a 'smear mailer' right before the primary, alleging that the two strong candidates running against them, Craig Dininny, an incumbent supervisor, and Jim Dougherty, a former supervisor running again, had improperly accepted campaign donations from Mascaro (the corporation) and three other township vendors, when in fact they had only accepted (legal) donations from several individual employees of J.P. Mascaro and those other vendors.

Those same individuals from those same companies that were allegedly accused of wrongdoing along with Craig and Jim also donated money to the Lower Providence Republican Committee, which they in turn gave to the campaigns of....Colleen and Don.  No allegedly needed here; it's in their Committee's campaign expense reports and the Republican Committee's minutes and financial statements.

The smear mailer is widely believed to be the main reason Craig and Jim lost the primary.

J.P. Mascaro was not happy to be accused, via the alleged mailer alleging something they had not done, and, to defend their corporate reputation,  filed suit in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas against Colleen, Don and their respective committees. That litigation is still ongoing.

Even IF Craig and Jim had accepted those campaign donations as Colleen and Don alleged they were made - by corporations, not individuals working for those corporations, it may now be viewed in a better light.

I know Craig and Jim well, and I know they are the kind of people who like to do things by the book. They have had opportunities to do the wrong thing and did not. In this case, their campaign did nothing wrong and even declined to use negative information in their campaign against Colleen and Don - preferring instead to take the high road and run a clean campaign, free of negativity, and instead focusing on the positive things they'd accomplished for the community.

That choice likely cost them the election, but I know they sleep just fine at night.

Time will tell what the impact of the recent Supreme Court ruling is on this case, if any, but I have to wonder if J.P. Mascaro (and Craig and Jim) are feeling a little bit  vindicated these days.

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