Sandra Kennedy and Sam George used the Clean Elections system to their advantage — so why was it so hard to get "Team Solar" to talk?

So far, we the people have given Sandra Kennedy $248,000 to run for the Arizona Corporation Commission. But when it came time to answer questions about that money last week, Sandra Kennedy was nowhere to be seen.

A process server was attempting to serve Kennedy with papers demanding she appear at a deposition to discuss her use of Clean Elections money. But, according to his affidavit, Kennedy seemed to be doing her best to dodge service. The server visited Kennedy's house four times over a three-day period, and though he heard the TV, no one came to the door. The windows were covered with paper, so he couldn't see inside. On his final attempt, a man who appeared to be Sandra Kennedy's husband drove up in a Mercedes. But rather than accept service on Kennedy's behalf, Mr. Mercedes pulled out of the driveway and took off.

Kennedy denies hiding from the server. But there's no doubt that one of her allies was doing everything in his power to get out of talking. Before they began haunting Chez Kennedy, process servers managed to deliver a subpoena to Kennedy's fellow Democrat, Sam George. George promptly hired a prominent attorney, Paul Eckstein of Perkins Coie Brown & Bain, to get him off the hook.

First, Eckstein claimed George was too busy. Then Eckstein was too busy. The lawyers seeking to depose George even vowed to keep the questions to two hours or less — and to keep the topics limited strictly to Clean Elections.

Still, last Friday, attorney Eckstein filed a motion for a protective order, arguing that the questions would cause George "significant harm from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, and undue burden." You'd think they were asking him to submit to a colonoscopy, not a deposition!

With Paul Newman, a Cochise County supervisor, George and Kennedy are running as a slate for the Arizona Corporation Commission: the "Solar Team." (Newman was apparently served without incident.) And here's why the three are suddenly in the hot seat: Their shenanigans could become Exhibit A in a Goldwater Institute lawsuit challenging Arizona's Clean Elections system.

As I first revealed in July, the Solar Team isn't just a catchy slogan. It's also a clever way to take advantage of Arizona's public financing for elections. (See "The Return of Sam Vagenas," July 31.)

The plan was the brainchild of George, a political consultant turned candidate with a history of shady dealings. (Once known as Sam Vagenas, he was linked to forged documents that were leaked to New Times, and other papers, in an attempt to smear then-Attorney General Janet Napolitano.)

George's plan, according to some brave Democratic whistleblowers, was to run as a team with fellow Democrats Paul Newman and Sandra Kennedy. Kennedy and Newman would file as Clean Elections candidates and receive public money; George would finance his own campaign.

But here's where it gets dicey. Clean Elections candidates running statewide get a set amount of money for primary races — $82,000. Unless, that is, they face a big-spending, privately funded opponent. Then, to even the playing field, Clean Elections matches spending up to $248,000.

Fair enough. But in this year's primary, George wasn't running "against" Newman or Kennedy — the three were running as a team. Still, when George poured more than $200,000 into the race, Clean Elections automatically matched that amount for Kennedy and Newman. Coupled with George's spending, that was enough to finance TV commercials promoting the Solar Team — and give the slate a $496,000 jump on future Republican rivals.

I was stunned to learn that such a stunt is, in fact, legal. But I shouldn't have worried too much, because it's also likely unconstitutional.

Nick Dranias, an attorney at the Goldwater Institute, tells me that in June, the Supreme Court's struck down the federal "Millionaire's Amendment," which eased contribution limits for candidates facing wealthy, self-funded opponents.

It used to be that if candidates were facing a John Edwards type who put millions into his own campaign, they'd be allowed to raise more money from individual donors than is normally permitted. But the court said that was unconstitutional. It's long held that spending on political campaigns is a form of free speech — while the state can put limits on candidates' fundraising, it's much dicier to stop them from spending their own money to get elected. In its June decision, the Supes basically said that the Millionaire's Amendment was unfair to millionaires. Just because a candidate is rich shouldn't mean that the fundraising rules change for his opponent. The court called it an unconstitutional "drag" on the millionaire's free speech rights.

The court made just one exception: programs that prevented corruption or the appearance of corruption.

Dranias and his colleagues quickly realized that Arizona had a problem. If raising contribution limits to match the funding advantages of wealthy candidates is unconstitutional, surely so is a state system that guarantees public funding for that purpose.

So the Goldwater Institute sued Clean Elections over its matching funds — and quickly found success. Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver ruled that Arizona's matching fund provisions are unconstitutional. In hopes of not interfering with the primary election at the last minute, Silver declined to halt payments — but she pledged to continue sorting out the repercussions of her decision in the coming months.

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8 comments
Jan
Jan

If a candidate participates in an independent expenditure campaign for him or herself he or she is guilty of a felony. Vagenas was or is an employee of Sperling. Let's connect the dots once Sperling's money begins to be dumped into this race on behalf of Vagenas and his "team."

KeenObserver
KeenObserver

Ms. Fenske should call John Sperling and ask him why he plans on putting $2 million into this race. Why the interest? What did Vagenas know about this, and when did he know it?

Marie
Marie

Bruce, check my comment again, please. I did not say they were actually matched, only that they WOULD have been. I was that the potential for abuse is evidenced by such a line-up, that this isn't something that D's have conjured up alone. I have heard stories in previous years that Robson did the same thing when running for the House in our district, but those were only rumors. Regardless,it seems clear that the "Solar Team" milked the system for every last drop. Is it legal? Yes. Does it violate the intent of the law? I believe so. But so did Andrew Thomas signs in Scottsdale that were cut in half to be within the size limitations, and Republicans got a kick out of those. Do I really want a county attorney who "technically" stays within the law? Nope. Nor do I necessarily want a Corporation Commissioner who does the same. I plan to vote for Stump and Wong, but the jury is still out on who the lucky winner of my third vote will be.Too bad Kelty lost. She would have had my third vote :(

Bruce
Bruce

Marie, that is not correct. Robson spent roughly the same amount as the other two candidates. McClure and Stump did NOT receive matching funds.

Emil Pulsifer
Emil Pulsifer

Here's a no-brainer: give each qualifying (i.e., viable) candidate an equal and adequate amount of public funding, and prohibit any additional campaign expenditures. Assign a public auditor to each campaign to account for every dollar spent. If it takes a constitutional amendment to secure such legislation, then pass it.

Of course, this still leaves the question of "independent" expenditures to be considered. Any legislative body passing restrictive legislation should understand that when you plug one hole the water just runs that much faster out of the remaining holes.

Beyond that, there's the question of the conditioning influence of the mass media, whose ownership is also wealthy and whose biases more often than not reflect the class interests of those owners.

It's hard to respect a "democracy" that permits money to determine (or unduly influence) the outcomes of political campaigns, and that's often what happens when wealthy candidates, or candidates backed by wealthy individuals and corporations, can get their message out to voters via mass advertising, on a broader and more consistent basis than their funding-handicapped challengers.

Ms. Fenske recently wrote an excellent article on the undermining influence of money in determining the viability of so-called voter initiatives, but candidate elections are no different.

"Democracy" entails one person, one vote, not one dollar, one vote. "Freedom of speech" shouldn't be construed to mean that if a candidate has more money then he is entitled to more speech and therefore more freedom.

Marie
Marie

Tons of candidates do this. Robson, McClure, and Stump ran together with only McClure and Stump running clean. Any money raised by Robson would have been matched. I see it as a flaw in the system for sure, but to present this as though the D's in the CC race are the only ones guilty of it ignores the fact that its rampant.The only disgusting part is that, from what I understand, George (or whatever his name really is) played a big hand in the passing of clean elections law.Just more evidence that our initiative process can be bought. Just look at Prop 200! Payday lenders dumping 11 million bucks into our state to protect their own interests, then call it "reform" I'm voting no on everything this November. I suggest everyone else do the same!

Helen R.
Helen R.

Are all the officials of the Democratic Party so new to Arizona that all this sleazeball had to do was change his name and drop a lot of cash to get their blessing?

Matt S.
Matt S.

13-2310. Fraudulent schemes and artifices; classification; definition

A. Any person who, pursuant to a scheme or artifice to defraud, knowingly obtains any benefit by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, promises or material omissions is guilty of a class 2 felony.

 
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