Mingo political action committee cleared of allegations
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Although a Mingo County political action committee accepted "improper contributions," it did not violate any state law.
That's because state law doesn't prohibit a PAC from receiving donations that were illegal for a contributor to make, according to a letter sent to the committee by an attorney with the Secretary of State's office.
"Except for four specifically identified circumstances, West Virginia Code does not make it a violation for a PAC to receive money, which may have been improperly donated," wrote Tim Leach, an attorney for the Secretary of State's Office, in a letter.
"None of the four specific prohibitions apply to Team Mingo 2012," Leach stated later in the letter.
Leach sent the letter, dated Aug. 28, to Greg "Hootie" Smith, a Mingo County commissioner and treasurer of the Team Mingo 2012 PAC. Unprompted, Smith provided the Daily Mail with a copy of the letter. He declined further comment.
While Leach said the PAC committed no violations and the office was dismissing the complaint against the PAC, he wrote, "we are troubled" that no state law or regulation covers these particular circumstances.
"Although the Code does not specifically address receipt of a prohibited contribution, it is difficult to conclude that the recipient should be allowed to benefit from a prohibited contribution," Leach wrote.
"Federal regulation apparently covers this and requires repayment once the prohibited status is brought to the attention of the recipient."
Leach said the office plans to study the federal model and potentially "clarify" state regulations or laws with an amendment. It is up to the Legislature to add any circumstances where a PAC could not receive money, Leach wrote.
Leach described the four specific circumstances where state law prohibits a PAC from accepting a donation:
n The donation can't be anonymous.
n It can't be more than $50 if it's in cash.
n It can't come from another PAC.
n A PAC cannot receive more than $1,000 from the same contributor during an election period.
A PAC that only makes independent expenditures can receive more than $1,000 from the same contributor, Leach said, citing a ruling from a federal judge for the southern district of West Virginia.
The Secretary of State's office has investigated the PAC and contributions it received from the campaigns of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick, Treasurer John Perdue, state Sen. Art Kirkendoll and state Senate candidate Mark Wills. All are Democrats.
The campaigns contributed a combined $3,700 to the PAC leading up to the 2012 election. The PAC is not officially affiliated with any county political party. In May, Secretary of State spokesman Jake Glance told the Daily Mail that active candidate campaigns cannot legally make donations to an unaffiliated PAC.
Less than two weeks after the Daily Mail published a story about the contributions, the PAC returned all of the money to the respective campaigns. Smith and Mingo County Commission President John Mark Hubbard contributed money to the PAC the day before it sent back the $3,700 to the campaigns.
"In the meantime, we commend your committee for voluntarily refunding the improper contributions once brought to the PAC's attention," Leach wrote.
Kirkendoll, a Logan County Democrat whose district also includes portions of Boone, Licoln, Mingo and Wayne counties, said Friday his campaign did not know the contribution was not allowed when it was made.
"Well you know I didn't. You know I didn't think there was anything wrong with it," Kirkendoll said.
"We thought it was perfectly fine to do it or else I never would have done it."
He acknowledged receiving the money sent back from the PAC, and said the Secretary of State's office had cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Republican political operative Rob Cornelius filed the complaints with the secretary of state. A letter dated Wednesday from Leach to Cornelius states the office has concluded its investigations concerning the contribution made by Kirkendoll's campaign.
Cornelius said he appreciated the Secretary of State's office investigating the matter but was disappointed there was no recourse under state law concerning the actions of the PAC.
"The good news is that the folks at the Federal Election Commission haven't looked at it this yet, and have a little better idea of what happens when people at a state PAC spend unreported funds on a federal election," Cornelius said.
The offices of Helmick and Perdue referred comment to campaign officials. An official with the Helmick campaign did not return a phone message, and the Daily Mail was unable to speak with a Perdue campaign official.
Wills did not return a phone message.
The Secretary of State's Office is not allowed to talk about an investigation. Mingo County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Sparks recently told the Daily Mail he had been contacted by the office concerning an investigation. He asked the Mingo Circuit Court to be disqualified from the case because there was a conflict of interest.
The state is in the process of appointing a special prosecutor for the case. Originally the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Institute planned to appoint a prosecuting attorney from Kanawha County. However, the institute's Executive Director Philip Morrison told the Daily Mail Thursday the office also had a conflict of interest.
The Raleigh County Prosecutor's Office agreed to assist on the case, Morrison said. The Mingo Circuit Court still needs to approve the appointment. Morrison said he expected them to approve the special prosecutor early this week.