November 12, 2009

The Moderate Loophole Is Moral... If Only Block Would Admit It

Justin Katz

As it happens, I spent more than a few moments pondering the statutory language in which Moderate Party founder Ken Block found a campaign financing loophole:

17-25-10.1 Political contributions – Limitations. – (a) No person, other than the candidate to his or her own campaign, nor any political action committee shall make a contribution or contributions to any candidate, as defined by § 17-25-3, or political action committee or political party committee which in the aggregate exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000) within a calendar year, nor shall any person make contributions to more than one state or local candidate, to more than one political action committee, or to more than one political party committee, or to a combination of state and local candidates and political action committees and political party committees which in the aggregate exceed ten thousand dollars ($10,000) within a calendar year, nor shall any political action committee make such contributions which in the aggregate exceed twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000) within a calendar year, nor shall any candidate or any political action committee or any political party committee accept a contribution or contributions which in the aggregate exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000) within a calendar year from any one person or political action committee.

(2) Notwithstanding the provisions of subdivision (1) of this subsection, a person or political action committee or political party committee may contribute an amount which in the aggregate does not exceed ten thousand dollars ($10,000) within a calendar year to a political party committee, which funds can be utilized for organizational and party building activities, but shall not be used for contributions to candidates state and local for public office.

My impression of the intent is for subdivision (2) essentially to allow a person or committee to donate his, her, or its maximum to one local committee. Block's argument is that the word "notwithstanding" overrides everything in subdivision (1) (the first paragraph), and as a matter of the law, that's clearly correct. Indeed, one must admit that my impression has no textual basis.

Of course, reading the whole of section 10.1, one is struck by the sloppiness of the legislation, which raises the relevant point, in my mind: The whole endeavor is dumb and overreaching. I'd be a whole lot more inclined to support Block — in this and in general — if he'd just come out and say, "These laws are inappropriate, and I feel no moral compunction about poking holes in them." Instead, he offers this, from Ed Fitzpatrick's column, today:

Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John M. Marion said, "I don't think the law, as it's written, prevents [what Block did]." But he thinks it did go against the spirit of the law. He said the law aims to place a $10,000 limit on the amount one person can give to a party, but with 39 cities and towns in Rhode Island, Block has found a way to funnel up to $390,000 to a party.

"I think we should plug the hole that Ken Block found in the dam," Marion said.

Money has found its way around such dams for years. "So that's why we have embraced public financing," Marion said. "Instead of trying to stick your finger in the dike, you create a new structure and chase the special-interest money out by putting clean money in."

Block said he supports publicly financed elections. "Ultimately, that's the right way to go," he said. "But you don't unilaterally go in and operate in ways you'd like everyone else to do it." ...

But Marion noted there's a reason for limits on money in politics: "So no one citizen can have an outsized voice in our political system. If the ideal is one person, one vote, money can act as a magnifier."

Actually, my objection is more directly to Marion: Lot's of things are "magnifiers," and money probably isn't the most insidious of them. Fame is a magnifier. Media access is a magnifier. So, it winds up being not just money that must be curtailed, but political speech. Why not take the next step and insist that all candidates must run anonymously? That way we might avoid any more Al Frankens.

Attempting to bottle political genies is a fools errand that only winds up giving advantage to people whose advantage can't be captured and who have the resources to exploit loopholes or work around the law — spirit and letter.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

I think there is something to be said for setting a limit on total contributions that a candidate could accept. In order to get "face time" they would be required to appear at press conferences or other wise publicly speak. This would permit more time for questions, and hopefully, answers.

This has a downside. I accept that contributions are a form of "free speech". Secondly, if face time could only be obtained by appearing at "events", this would leave the media in charge by it's decisions on what is "news worthy".

Posted by: Warington Faust at November 12, 2009 3:06 PM

I don't know what to make of this Moderate party. Ken Block himself deserves a lot of credit for what he has accomplished....right up to the point of this boner.

His signature drive was an impressive success. He prevailed in the legal battles that got in the way.

He and his committee have put together a exceptional platform. (Something the RIGOP cannot seem to accomplish.) By the language of the policy platform in Economy, Ethics, Environment and Education, it seems like they get it, and have a good feel for what must be done to fix the state's problems.

Wheter they are truly serious about the platform remains to be seen. Reports (hopefully rumors) that they've talked to Chafee and Avedisian about leading the ticket in 2010 leave me wondering.

What Mr. Block seems to possess in terms of management skills appears to be sorely lacking in terms of political acumen. He needs to admit he is wrong so he can move past this. The longer he fights it, the more he looks like he's trying to pull a fast one...and the people who pay attention see same-ole, same-ole.

By being big-headed, he is doing a great disservice to the party he founded.

Posted by: George at November 12, 2009 3:57 PM

George, with all due respect, why should someone admit wrong-doing if they did no wrong? Because others perceive this to be any number of things doesn't make it so. The fact that he spoke to the board of elections prior to doing this and is within the law in doing it doesn't require apology. Mr. Block was forthcoming, this wasn't something uncovered by the media.

If you researched tax law and discovered that you could legally get an additional credit for "X" reason, should you apologize for researching the law and using that research to your benefit?

Posted by: Steve A at November 13, 2009 12:12 AM

Steve A, I didn't say anything about apologizing. Although I do not think it would hurt Mr. Block, the Moderate Party or any candidates.

There was a discussion of this situation on the Dan Yorke show along with mention that the scheme clearly violates federal election law. The federal law in this case does apply to local election financing.

Second, something being legal does not necessarily make it ethical, moral or wise. The scheme does not pass a smell test. The sooner Mr. Block steps up and says, "gee, I'm trying to build up my fledgling party, I checked with the BOE, I thought it would be OK, but now I see where it may have created a unfavorable perception. For the sake of the Moderate Party, I'm going to return the money to Barrington and move on."

The longer he waits to do this, the longer the stench stays around.

Posted by: George at November 13, 2009 12:50 AM

Ethics, these people have none. Pay attention Pat Crowly you're gonna love this post. I don't know if news media read these comments but if they did, they could generate some headlines. Take a close look at the Moderate Party video, produced for free as a corporate donation (quite possible illegal in itself), the film uses aerial footage they clearly did not pay for (ask a couple of the local ad agencies, one of them did) and the theme music is from the motion picture Meet Joe Black. It might be instructive to ask the copyright owners of that soundtrack if they too support the moderate party or, as is more likely the case, they were just ripped off by the unethical, win-at-any-cost, Ken Block and the moderate party. Just another stunning example that these guys are not only no different, they are quite possibly worse! BTW, these ethical violations are all independently verifiable.

Posted by: Sarah at November 13, 2009 8:44 AM

Sarah, I'm curious what background you have that allows you to assasinate a group of people's charachters that you don't know and probably have never met. "These people have none" when refering to ones ethics is a loaded statement. Are "these" people those running the party, supporters, affiliated voters?

Secondly, there are many levels to copyright law (of which I haven't studied) and unlike yourself, know better than to comment on in an inflammatory manner. I do know however that there are distictions between material used for profit and non-profit. One could argue that the Moderate Party's informational clip is to educate voters of RI. As for the flyover clips, who is to say that they were collected specifically for this video and weren't already owned by the video producers for such uses? I don't know, do you? You sound like the party should be declaring donation costs for the plane rental, recording equipment, and pilot fees.

I read blogs because I love to read the many sides of an arguement and sometimes come away with information I hadn't thought of. Those posts can be easily differentiated from those with agenda purposes. By the looks of things it's clear which category yours fits.

Posted by: Steve A at November 13, 2009 9:50 AM

I'd like to see the Moderate party deliver on its platform.

I believe they can do that by:

1. Cutting their losses (i.e. Ken Block's $10 G's)and killing this story before becomes the definition of what the party is.

2. Staying far away from people like Lincoln Chafee and Scott Avedisian. Their track records do not even come close to what is outlined in the Moderate party's 4 E's.

My first impression of the Moderate Party was that it would serve as a new home for liberals who were Republicans too long to be able to succeed if they switched to Democrat. (ergo, my repetition of the Chafee/Avedisian reference).

My first reaction was, "the last thing we need is moderation" considering the extreme needs of this failing state.

But then I read the platform.

If the moderate party could deliver on that platform, with little or no deviation, the quality of life for all Rhode Islanders would be greatly improved.

But now I'm disappointed. I can only imagine that prospective candidates must be too.

To survive and retake the "breath-of-fresh-air" mantle, the Moderate Party must very clearly, openly and honestly, resolve this issue of perception.

Then they need to make bold statements with whom they endorse as candidates, and leave little doubt that they are serious about their platform.

Posted by: George at November 13, 2009 11:05 AM

I'd like to respond to Justin's assertion that money a "magnifier" equal to (or even less important than) fame or media access. Generally speaking, the latter flow from the former. Politicians have, since the founding of the Republic, used money to influence the masses. Of course we can never take all of the money out of politics, but trying to minimize its impact is certainly a worthy endeavor, in my view.

Posted by: John M at November 16, 2009 4:22 PM
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