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Senate Proposes Campaign Finance Sunshine Before Bringing Shade


Senators killed a new bill that would have introduced a flood of welcomed transparency to Mississippi’s shadowy campaign finance laws, despite Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann personally asking the Senate to update the system.  

 

Hosemann openly criticized Mississippi’s cloudy campaign finance system throughout the Republican primary. His ultra-right-wing opponent, Sen. Chris McDaniel, took in nearly half a million dollars in out-of-state dark money during the primary and volunteered to return all but $15,000 of it after Hosemann claimed the money was over the donation limit. Thanks to Mississippi’s near opaque campaign laws, the dark money nonprofit American Exceptionalism Institute (AEI), was able to contribute $465,000 to McDaniel’s “Hold the Line” PAC. The PAC then forwarded most of the payment to McDaniel’s campaign, in violation of a Mississippi law that limits corporate donations to $1,000 per year. As a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organization, AEI is not required to disclose its contributors, so the ultimate source of McDaniel’s money will likely never be known. 

 

Politicians can seemingly evade the state’s perfunctory campaign laws so long as the only state agency enforcing them abdicates its power. This is the reality, thanks to Attorney General Lynn Fitch, whose office does not appear to prosecute Republicans and has not released an annual report since 2020.


For years, Attorney General Lynn Fitch claimed the report would be out in 2020.


Until, perhaps, the AG realized removing all reports was much easier.


Fitch failed to investigate or prosecute the biggest TANF theft in state history (although she has ordered the state auditor to cease its investigation), and she concluded no action when Hosemann accused McDaniel of campaign finance violations.  

 

Hosemann, who eventually won his seat as lieutenant governor, demanded new state laws to make campaign money more transparent, and the Senate Elections Committee delivered up Senate Bill 2575, right before killing it. The bill would have made new accounting reports available to researchers and voters. It also would have removed the fangless State Ethics Commission from campaign finance duties, letting the secretary of state take up campaign abuse investigations when Fitch (inevitably) drops the ball. Should a Mississippi state agency manage to push an investigation all the way to a conviction, the bill would have upgraded penalties for willfully filing false finance reports to a felony crime of perjury. It would have increased penalties from a maximum of $3,000 and six months detainment to a new maximum of $5,000 and a year in jail. 

 




The bill defined “electioneering” in Mississippi (a first!), and it took a stern eye to candidate committees and political committees that miss their deadline to file reports. On the fifth calendar day after periodic or annual reports are due, the bill would have allowed the secretary of state to “assess the delinquent candidate committee and political committee a ($1,000) civil penalty” for each day or part of any day “until a valid report is delivered … up to a maximum of 10 days.”  

 

Also helpful, the bill would have inserted a requirement that Mississippi candidates and donors file campaign finance reports electronically, as opposed to sloppy hard copy, illegibly handwritten reports. In addition, the bill would have demanded the secretary of state build a searchable electronic database of campaign finance reports by 2027 and release annual reports on the information. 

 

Most of the secretary of state’s current campaign finance website isn’t searchable by specific criteria and only contains data provided by the individual candidates, political committees, or designated representatives. Secretary of State Michael Watson admits on his campaign finance page the “Secretary of State is without the legal authority or obligation to verify the data or investigate its accuracy.” And he confesses files available for perusal are PDF conversions that “may not be fully accurate.”  

 

Site information is inconsistent and depends on the charity of the candidate you investigate. A hunt for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley’s “10/10/2023 Periodic Report Form Filing” pulls up a detailed 746 pages of individual contributors. A search for Republican winner Tate Reeves’ “10/10/2023 Periodic Report Form Filing” nabs a four-page summary of Reeves having roughly $2 million on hand. To the inexperienced, the website is little more than a PDF dump for unmonitored information. Look elsewhere for revelations of quid pro quo or hints of politicians engaging in insider trading like U.S. Rep. Michael Guest (R-MS) likely did. (Guest—the chair of the House Ethics Committee—just happened to invest heavily in chip maker Nvidia three days before Nvidia stock jumped 32%.) 

 

Senate Bill 2525 would have brought much-needed updates to Mississippi’s 1970s-era campaign database and filing requirements before legislators sapped the bill with a committee substitute. Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, told reporters that po’ ‘ol Mississippi politicians don’t have the know-how or the internet bandwidth to use a computer and shouldn’t be held responsible for submitting electronic reports. 


Not only did senators let candidates off the hook for filing electronically but they also killed the bill before it was born by inserting a June death clause before it’s July activation date. 




The House has no meaningful bill seeking to do what SB 2575 tried to do before senators shut it down, so Mississippi will likely continue to remain a wasteland for campaign information and public information in general. Reporters can try to supplement the state’s broken campaign database with Freedom of Information Act requests, but even if the state maintained competent records, Mississippi agencies frequently discourage FOIA requests with punitive fees. 

 

Adam Andrzejewski, founder and CEO of government watchdog Open the Books, said the blockade on government information, particularly through exorbitant fees and bad record-keeping, is taking a toll on the nation as a democracy. 

 

“Things are getting worse everywhere,” said Andrzejewski. “(Information vacuums and punitive fees) are an impediment to free speech. High fees are essentially a tax on citizens. It’s a tax on free speech. The other side, the politicians who we’re paying for, they have all the information, and we have to pay them to be on equal footing.” 



 




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