City attorney rules on campaign finance violations

Two campaign finance complaints filed with the city of Idaho Falls were sustained by the Idaho Falls City Attorney’s Office in municipal elections this year.

The most recent opinion from the office found that Businesses for Growth Facts, a Facebook page set up to oppose the Businesses for Growth political action committee that targeted incumbent Mayor Rebecca Casper, violated campaign finance law by not filing as a political committee.

“Idaho’s election law requires all campaign contributions, including in-kind contributions, to be reported,” Assistant City Attorney Mike Kirkham wrote in an opinion released Tuesday. “Even if (Businesses for Growth Facts) does not receive any contributions or does not (make) any expenditures, (the group) must still file as a political committee and submit a report to that effect.”

Attorney Steve Taggart, who previously acted as a spokesman for the group, whose member are anonymous, said he thinks Kirkham’s decision lacks legal foundation. But he said the group is unlikely to go through the effort of challenging the opinion, and will instead likely file a disclosure indicating it never received or spent a dime.

“I think it’s incorrect. I think it flies in the face of the secretary of state’s interpretation, but it is what it is,” Taggart said. “… The question is whether it’s worth the energy.”

Idaho Code defines a political committee, among other ways, as “any person specifically designated to support or oppose any candidate or measure.” In legal terms, a “person” could mean an individual, but also groups of various kinds.

Chief Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst previously said there isn’t much case law clarifying what “specifically designated” means in this legal context.

So would a single individual who is an outspoken supporter of a political candidate, who regularly makes social media posts in support of that candidate, need to file paperwork registering as a political committee in order to legally engage in political speech? Under what conditions does a social media group need to file?

Kirkham said he was simply applying the written definition in the state’s Sunshine Law.

“I think the definition is broad, and maybe it’s too broad,” Kirkham said.

Legislation is expected to be introduced next year by a committee which has been working on legislation throughout the interim that will clarify the relationship between Idaho campaign finance law and social media use.

But Kirkham said he felt there were specific features of Businesses for Growth Facts that distinguish it from a single individual or group engaging in ordinary political speech.

“I went to the Facebook page to see what they were doing,” he said. “It did appear the Facebook page had a stated purpose, to oppose another political committee.”

It was also clear, he said, that the group intended to influence the outcome of the election, pushing voters toward Casper and away from challenger Councilwoman Barbara Ehardt.

Kirkham said the group also distinguished itself as a political committee by using an anonymous group account, rather than using individual accounts with its members’ actual names names attached.

“They don’t say who they are,” Kirkham said. “They never identify where their influence is coming from.”

Evan Bastow, who filed the complaint against Businesses for Growth Facts, said he was pleased by the outcome.

“I think it’s good,” he said. “They’ve been determined to be a political committee.”

He also said he wasn’t concerned about the timing of the report’s release late on Election Day.

“I don’t think it was going to have any effect on the election,” he said. “That didn’t bother me at all. I think they’re just trying to get this group to do the right thing.”

Kirkham also provided a copy of an October opinion that former city council candidate Dan Beck violated campaign finance law by failing to list a helicopter flight by his father, Doyle Beck, at the Emotion Bowl. Doyle Beck delivered the game ball while flying a “Dan Beck for City Council” sign on the side of the aircraft. Doyle Beck was also one of the main funders of the Businesses for Growth PAC, which opposed Casper.

“Although personal services of campaign volunteers are exempt, the helicopter promotion performed on behalf of (Dan Beck’s) campaign was not, in the opinion of the City Attorney’s Office, the sort of service that is commonly performed by volunteer campaign workers,” Kirkham wrote. “As a result, the helicopter promotion contribution should have been disclosed on (Dan Beck’s) disclosure report.”

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.