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Attorney General Lynn Fitch wants campaign finance reform and more enforcement — wait, what?



Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch

Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s reluctance to investigate or prosecute campaign finance violations last year prompted other state leaders to call for reform and more enforcement.

Now Fitch is calling for — wait for it — campaign finance reform and more enforcement. This appears to be at least in part political damage control, trying to get out front in an area where she’s drawn slings and arrows.

Fitch, whose own campaign is largely funded by out-of-state special interests, in a brief media tour with conservative media outlets said she wants to put a halt to “out of state influencers” with deep pockets meddling in Mississippi elections.

But oddly, in announcing this crusade, Fitch offered an open call to out-of-state influencers to dump unlimited amounts of money into Mississippi elections.

Fitch, in her press release announcing her call for reform, said — contrary to more than 30 years of legal interpretation and practice — there is no limit to the amount of money out-of-state corporations can donate to a Mississippi candidate. She even put it in italics, for emphasis on her attempted nullification of one of the few stringent campaign donation rules Mississippi has.

This goes against at least 30 years of legal interpretation and practice. Mississippi candidates and campaigns, bless their hearts, have operated under the assumption that out-of-state corporations face the same $1,000 a year donation limit as in-state corporations.

In its written campaign finance guide for Mississippi candidates, the secretary of state’s office for decades has advised candidates: “Corporations, incorporated companies, and incorporated associations are prohibited from contributing more than $1,000 per calendar year, directly or indirectly, to a political party, candidate for office or political committee.” The current 2024 guide for candidates includes this same language that does not make a distinction between out-of-state and in-state corporations.

Fitch’s office did not answer questions about her new interpretation that such limits don’t apply to out-of-state corporations. It would appear that only months ago — on Aug. 4, 2023 — Fitch herself appeared to believe that limit applied. She announced, after months of inaction on major campaign finance complaints, that her office was investigating whether a PAC run by lieutenant governor candidate Chris McDaniel’s campaign treasurer tried “exceeding corporate contribution limits” by shuffling out-of-state money through PACs.

But now, Fitch contends out-of-state corporations do not face the state’s $1,000 limit law. This is likely based on the wording of that law, which says, “It shall be unlawful for any corporation … organized under the laws of this state” to exceed $1,000 a year in donations to a candidate. But that law also says this applies to any corporation “doing business in this state.” This language, similar to corporate law and rules elsewhere in Mississippi regulations and those of other states, has been generously interpreted. Doing business in this state can mean many things, including making a donation to a candidate, and hence out-of-state corporations have been at least in practice limited to $1,000 a year.

READ MORE: Chris McDaniel, Lynn Fitch and the case of the missing $15,000

It would appear Fitch — the only statewide official with clear authority to investigate and prosecute campaign finance violations — is going through some legal contortions in an effort to avoid having to do so. Many political observers believe this is because she has higher political ambition, perhaps for the governor’s office, and doesn’t want to draw ire from the more conservative wing of the GOP by clamping down on campaign finances.

In a radio interview last week, Fitch said, “We’re allowing out-of-state influencers to determine and to pick who the candidates should be in our state … (and) We’ve got to have enforcement.” She said there were instances last election that were “clearly unethical and clearly immoral … but they weren’t criminal under our laws.” She said she wants lawmakers to fix that. Others have said Fitch’s office has campaign enforcement power that she refuses to exercise.

Fitch’s call for reform and limiting out-of-state money in Mississippi rings a little hollow. A majority of Fitch’s own campaign money, according to her 2023 finance reports, came from out-of-state businesses: about $727,000 of $1.27 million.

Fitch also appears to get lots of money from out-of-state interests to whom her office awards contracts. Records show that Fitch signed at least nine AG office contracts last year with out-of-state law firms (law firms and other forms of limited liability companies do not face a $1,000 limit) that had donated more than $300,000 to her campaign.

Secretary of State Michael Watson declined comment on Fitch’s call for reform and statement that the $1,000 limit doesn’t apply to out-of-state corporations. Watson has called for major reforms and last summer appeared to take a dig at Fitch when he said he wasn’t seeking more power for his office.

“But when people do not do their jobs,” he said, “I will stand in the gap for Mississippians.”

READ MORE: Chris McDaniel, Lynn Fitch show that Mississippi might as well not have campaign finance laws

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who filed several campaign finance complaints with the AG’s office against his primary opponent McDaniel last year, has also called for reform and more enforcement. On primary election night when his victory was evident, Hosemann said campaign finance reform would be a top Senate priority this session.

Calls for Mississippi campaign finance reform are fairly common, particularly during statewide election years. But actual reform is rare. In 2017, after a more than a year-long investigative series by the Clarion Ledger, lawmakers did pass a law ending the practice of Mississippi politicians spending campaign donations for personal expenses — a practice dubbed “legalized bribery.”

But otherwise, Mississippi’s weak campaign finance laws for decades have only been tweaked and changed piecemeal. The laws are now a confusing, often conflicting, patchwork. For instance, the new law on spending for personal expenses conflicts with some existing law that was left intact.

And enforcement has been nearly nonexistent.

It’s unclear whether sweeping reform such as that being proposed by Watson will be addressed this legislative session. Generally lawmakers are loath to police their own campaigns or give more enforcement power to any other office holder. Some have said the appointed Ethics Commission should be given more authority and enforcement power, as many other states have non-elected entities policing campaign finances.

Fitch’s Democratic challenger in last year’s election, attorney Greta Kemp Martin, campaigned unsuccessfully on reform and enforcement of campaign finance laws.

“It’s amusing to see Attorney General Fitch’s newfound interest in election laws,” Martin said last week, “especially considering there was no apparent concern leading up to Election Day. Enhance penalties, reform and clarity are needed in Mississippi campaign finance for sure. But AG Fitch has not shown that enforcement of even the minimal laws currently in place has even been a priority for her office … Further, this sudden interest has me curious as to whether AG Fitch has taken a look at her own financial reports, especially when it involves out-of-state donations.”

Fitch did not provide great detail on her “reform package” in her press release or subsequent interviews. Her office did not answer questions on what specific bills might be forthcoming or which lawmakers would be filing them.

But Fitch did say she wants more transparency and truthfulness in campaign finance reporting, suggesting “adding a penalty of perjury to all campaign finance reports, which can carry up to 10 years in prison.” She also called for improving the civil penalties for violations and “giving the secretary of state authority to do his job” of making public campaign finance reports easy to read and search.

Despite most everyone else already thinking it’s the law for decades, Fitch wants to prohibit “all corporate contributions over $1,000 — not just those made by Mississippi corporations, which is current law.” (Those italics are by her.)

In her press release, Fitch said: “We have devised a package of reforms that will tighten the laws to keep outside special interests from meddling in our elections, to give Mississippi voters the tools to know who is trying to influence their vote, and to hold bad actors accountable.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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