After months of inaction on claims of widespread campaign finance violations this election cycle, Attorney General Lynn Fitch says she’ll investigate a PAC run by lieutenant governor candidate Chris McDaniel’s campaign treasurer.
The Invest in Mississippi PAC has been running hundreds of thousand of dollars in ads attacking incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann. It has been fueled by $885,000 in donations from out-of-state super PACs.
The Invest in Mississippi political action committee was created in July by Wisconsin political operative Thomas Datwyler. McDaniel lists Datwyler as treasurer for his campaign proper, which has also faced claims of flagrant campaign finance law violations from Hosemann. Datwyler has a history of running afoul of Federal Election Commission campaign finance rules with several congressional campaigns.
In a press release Friday afternoon, Fitch said her office has alerted the Invest PAC of “an investigation into potential criminal violations under the Mississippi Election Code, as well as other statutes.” Fitch said Mississippi’s campaign finance law “generously” protects free speech, “But that does not mean there is no line protecting the people from illegitimate influence of our democratic system.”
“The people of Mississippi should be able to expect that those who participate in our electoral process will not seek to exploit this careful balance and step over that line,” Fitch wrote, “and in this instance, there is evidence to suggest that has occurred here.”
Fitch’s press release gave no indication of whether she would investigate numerous other allegations of campaign finance violations by McDaniel and other candidates this election cycle.
Neither McDaniel nor Datwyler has responded to requests for comment this week on campaign finance issues and allegations.
Fitch said her investigation was prompted by a complaint filed Aug. 3 with her office.
Hosemann’s campaign filed such a complaint on Aug. 3, one of several he has made since March about McDaniel’s campaign or affiliated PACs.
The latest complaint filed by Hosemann campaign attorney Spencer Ritchie opens with, “Once again, appallingly, I write to request that you investigate further violations of Mississippi law relating to state Sen. Chris McDaniel’s campaign for lieutenant governor.”
The complaint claims that the super PAC to state PAC donations are an attempt to bypass Mississippi’s $1,000 a year limit on corporate donations to a Mississippi candidate or PAC. It says that even federal law allowing unlimited corporate donations for independent expenditures in a race would not cover Invest PAC’s actions because its expenditures “cannot be classified as independent.” The complaint notes that “the contact person for the PAC is Thomas Datwyler (and) Mr. Datwyler is simultaneously the contact person for Mr. McDaniel’s candidate committee.” It also noted that the PAC does not appear to be claiming its spending is separate from a campaign because it did not file an independent expenditure report with the state as required.
“The dark money PAC and Chris McDaniel are synonymous,” Hosemann said in a statement Friday. “They have dumped almost $1 million in this campaign in the last week to steal the Mississippi lieutenant governor’s race and your vote. Do we really think a Washington dark money PAC cares about Mississippi citizens? Vote on Aug. 8 to send them the answer.”
Fitch as AG is the only statewide official with clear authority to enforce the state’s weak campaign finance laws. She has faced criticism this election cycle over lack of action on allegations of campaign finance violations, particularly in the lieutenant governor’s race. At the recent Neshoba County fair, other officials or candidates called for reform.
Republican Secretary of State Michael Watson said he would likely ask lawmakers to give him enforcement authority. He said he isn’t seeking more power, “But when people do not do their jobs, I will stand in the gap for Mississippians” – a dig at Fitch.
The list of McDaniel’s legally questionable maneuvers with campaign money is lengthy. But one came early in his campaign, involving hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A state PAC McDaniel created received $475,000 from a secretive Virginia dark-money nonprofit corporation. His PAC then funneled $465,000 of it to his campaign.
State law limits such corporate donations to $1,000 a year to a candidate or PAC. So the donation was $474,000 over the legal limit.
McDaniel’s PAC initially hid some of these transactions with incomplete, inaccurate reporting to the secretary of state’s office. But eventually, after questions from Mississippi Today, he first chalked it up to “clerical errors.”
Then, McDaniel said Mississippi’s campaign finance laws are improper, but he doesn’t have time to mount a legal challenge, so his campaign returned the money to his PAC. McDaniel said his PAC then returned the money to the dark money group, and he shut down the PAC.
But, by his own reporting, McDaniel’s defunct PAC did not return $15,000 of the over-state-limits money, and has offered no accounting for what happened to it.
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