Arizona Republic Cleared on Alleged Campaign Finance Violation

By Sarah Fenske

It was an interesting idea. It just couldn't work.

Scottsdale gadfly Michael Merrill has long made no secret of his antipathy toward the Arizona Republic. The paper's editorial staff tends to side, almost always, with the Chamber of Commerce crowd -- and Merrill, suffice to say, has been critical of that agenda.

When the paper endorsed a slate of candidates before the city council primary in September, its choices were, not surprisingly, exactly the candidates that Merrill opposes. And, go figure, all three had some affiliation with the Scottsdale Chamber.

So Merrill swung into action. On August 19, he filed a complaint alleging that the Republic violated campaign finance law by failing to register as a political committee prior to making endorsements. They were attempting to influence the election, he reasoned; anyone else who did that would have to form a PAC.

On Tuesday, City Clerk Carolyn Jagger cleared the newspaper of any violations.

There's been some screwy stuff coming out of the Scottsdale power structure lately -- witness the decision to make Jim Lane, who won a majority of votes in the mayoral election in September, face off with incumbent Mary Manross again in November. (For once, I'm with Republic columnist Laurie Roberts on this one -- see her excellent column on this issue here.) But this one was a no-brainer: As Republic lawyer David Bodney pointed out in a letter to Jagger, there's no law that requires newspapers to register as political committees before making endorsements.

In fact, the law expressly exempts them.

"The Complaint's suggestion that the Republic register as a political committee before endorsing candidates for public office is tantamount to licensing the press, a notion that the the First Amendment abolished more than two centuries ago," Bodney wrote to the city on August 27. (Bodney, a former New Times editor, has never returned my call on anything; this was no exception.)

Really, when you think about it, how could the government force newspapers to register before expressing themselves editorially? Just imagine what Sheriff Joe Arpaio would try to do with that one?

City Clerk Jagger tells me the city took the complaint seriously. "We investigate every one," she says. "We do everything the same, no matter what the complaint is."

I have a lot of sympathy for the Manross critics. I do think the city has twisted the charter to its benefit more than once. But there's no way this complaint was going anywhere, and newspapers everywhere -- even ones like New Times that don't generally endorse candidates -- should be grateful.

I'm having email issues, which is probably why I didn't hear back from Merrill before deadline. I'll update you if he feels like weighing in.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske