A Maricopa County Superior Court judge threw cold water on Captain Joel Fox's already tepid arguments for keeping secret the names behind a large Republican Party donation.
At the hearing requested by Fox to stave off an impending order to cough up the names of the mysterious "SCA" donors or face a $315,000 fine, Judge Robert Houser [at right] seemed amused by Fox's amateur lawyering. Amused, that is, except for what he apparently sees is the most important issue: Disclosure of what Fox knows about the SCA.
Houser would not stay a May 27 order to turn over the names and other info normally kept by a treasurer of a political committee. The judge noted that Fox has not yet been ordered to pay the $315,000 fine, and that he hasn't proved he would be harmed by disclosing the SCA records. [See our July 1 post for the appeal documents filed by Fox].
In a major implication that this isn't going Fox's way, the judge says he was concerned the public's interest might be harmed by continuing delays in the case.
"This matter needs to be expedited in order to advance the public interest," Houser told Fox and Jeffrey Messing, who's representing the county, while issuing his bench order against Fox.
Sounding disappointed, Houser told Fox and Jeffrey Messing, who represents the county, that he could not suspend further appeals or proceedings. "If any further proceedings are filed," he said, sounding very much like he didn't think there should be any, "they should be immediately consolidated into this case so there is no interim delay."
We got the sense Houser was telling Fox not to bother with any more appeals. The judge said the whole "legislative scheme" of campaign finance laws was about "transparency in elections."
The hearing lasted about an hour, during which Fox withered under some of the judge's pointed questions. Houser noted that campaign finance laws are intended to promote disclosure, so shouldn't his reading of the statutes be as "expansive" as possible to make sure the legislative intent is honored?
"Absolutely," Fox agreed, to his own detriment.
Houser answered with a bemused, "Okay."
Houser also infused a skeptical note into questions about the lack of records Fox kept for the SCA. Fox insisted he kept no records whatsoever -- all he did was deposit checks into a bank account. Some donors direct-deposited money into the account, he said.
Fox was rebuffed repeatedly on his legally unripe debate points. For instance, he claimed that it was the department's burden to prove a $105,000 donation to the Republican Party was made to influence an election. Houser wondered aloud whether the fact that Fox gave the money to a political party meant the burden of proof had, in fact, shifted to Fox.
Fox responded that money given to a party doesn't automatically mean it was intended to affect an election. Houser seemed incredulous, asking if Fox was telling him that donors to political parties always needed to state the purpose for which the money was being used.
Messing used part of his rebuttal time to stress the interest to the public in disclosing the names of SCA donors, pointing out that campaign finance law exists for the public to see if favors are being doled out to a politician's biggest donors. He also cited a letter to Fox from Republican Party chairman Randy Pullen that stated clearly the donated money would be used to help various political races. Messing asked why, if Fox didn't want the money to influence an election, didn't he say anything to Pullen about that letter?
After Messing's response, Houser took a 15-minute recess before coming back to issue his bench order. The next step will apparently be to give Fox another day or two to divulge the donors' names. The county will then order Fox to pay the $315,000, if he doesn't divulve, at which time he'll have another appeal option.
Messing and Fox stayed in the courtroom 20 minutes or more after the hearing was over. Maybe something will get worked out, though we're hopeful Messing would never settle for anything less than full disclosure of SCA records by Fox.
As Houser made clear today, the public deserves nothing less.