COLUMBUS, Ohio – Dan La Botz, the Ohio Socialist Party candidate for United States Senate, charged Monday that the Ohio Newspaper Organization (ONO) and its corporate members are making illegal corporate contributions to Rob Portman’s and Lee Fisher’s Senate campaigns by holding debates that exclude him, and other minority party candidates.
In a statement La Botz stated: “Clandestine deals between corporate-America and its preferred candidates cannot be tolerated in free elections. If corporations, including news organizations, are to participate in American politics, they must—absolutely must—comply with the law. They must be neutral. They must be fair. They cannot simply shovel money, coverage, television exposure, and political favors to the two major-party candidates. Nor can candidates legally bargain for these gratuities.”
La Botz claims in his filing that ONO, a for-profit, business enterprise created by the eight largest newspapers in Ohio, has violated The Federal Election Campaign Act by sponsoring, staging, or funding debates between candidates for federal office, like the three they have planned for Rob Portman, the Republican nominee, and Lee Fisher, the Democratic nominee, who are running to replace retiring U.S. Senator George Voinovich.
The eight newspapers – the Toledo Blade, the (Canton) Repository, the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, the Columbus Dispatch, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Dayton Daily News, the Akron Beacon Journal, and the (Youngstown) Vindicator – have engaged in illegal activity, which La Botz cites as “making contributions or expenditures ‘in connection with’ any federal election. 2 U.S.C. § 441b(a). According to a media release from the La Botz campaign, “contributions” and “expenditures” prohibited by the FEAC include “any direct or indirect payment … or gift … to any candidate, campaign committee, or political party or organization [Id. § 441b(b)(2)}.”
La Botz campaign coordinator Mike Cannon said the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has construed this broad prohibition to include sponsoring debates. La Botz, who ran in Ohio’s primary and who garnered fewer than one thousand votes, has repeatedly tried to get into the Portman-Fisher debates.
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The filing claims that corporate news organizations that follow strict FEC guidelines have been granted a limited exemption from this general prohibition, and that regulations specifically provide that in order to qualify under this exemption, a corporate news organization must use “pre-established objective criteria to determine which candidates may participate in the debate ….” La Botz’s campaign said FEC regulations clearly state that “staging organizations(s) shall not use nomination by a particular political party as the sole objective criterion to determine whether to include a candidate in a debate.”
In passing these regulations, La Botz campaign coordinator Cannon said that the FEC has stated that “[s]taging organizations must be able to show that their objective criteria were used to pick the participants, and that the criteria were not designed to result in the selection of certain pre-chosen participants.”
The media release argues that courts interpreting these FEC regulations have noted that “these statements by the regulation’s drafters strongly suggest that the objectivity requirement precludes debate sponsors from selecting a level of support so high that only the Democratic and Republican nominees could reasonably achieve it.”
In his filing with the FEC, Mr. La Botz charges that ONO and its corporate members have organized three televised debates (using television stations owned by ONO’s members) between Portman and Fisher in violation of the FECA and the FEC’s regulations. No candidate other than the Republican and Democratic candidates were ever contacted about these debates, La Botz says, adding that planning began in June and culminated with a September 1, 2010 announcement.
“At no time during this period was La Botz contacted,” notwithstanding his repeated inquiries, Cannon noted. “ONO never established pre-existing objective criteria; it never announced any criteria at all…It simply selected its pre-chosen candidates—Fisher and Portman…Far from establishing and announcing objective criteria, ONO and its corporate members simply selected their pre-chosen participants—a clear violation of the FECA.”
“If they really believe in a democratic process and fair elections, the news organizations and candidates named in this complaint should take action immediately to include all other parties and candidates in the debates they are organizing,” La Botz said. He added, “The FEC, as the guarantor of fair elections, should also act at once to ensure that I and other parties and candidates are included in these and other such debates. I think it is important for these and for future elections to hold these candidates and their corporate sponsors accountable for their wrongdoing.”