Judge lifts ban on political group's TV ads

Move follows disclosure of group's sole donor

jbrammer@herald-leader.com, bmusgrave@herald-leader.comOctober 21, 2011 

Kentucky Governor Williams

in this Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011 photo, Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams is seen in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

ED REINKE — AP

FRANKFORT — A Kentucky judge agreed on Thursday to lift a restraining order that barred an outside political group from running campaign advertisements in the state.

At a hearing Thursday, Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate agreed to lift his restraining order against Restoring America after the group disclosed that its sole donor was the father-in-law of Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams. The group has spent more than $1.3 million to air television ads critical of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and complimentary of Williams.

Restoring America filed an amended 32-day pre-election campaign finance report late Wednesday showing that Terry Stephens, a Russell County businessman, was the sole contributor of $1.365 million to Restoring America Inc., which was originally listed as Restoring America's sole donor.

Stephens has given more than $2.3 million to groups pushing his son-in-law for governor.

Wingate had issued the restraining order on Monday at the request of the Kentucky Democratic Party. He ruled that the group violated Kentucky's campaign finance laws by failing to disclose the donors to Restoring America Inc., commonly called a 527 after its Internal Revenue Service designation.

Restoring America appealed the decision to the state Court of Appeals, which denied the appeal on Wednesday, saying circuit court was the proper venue to have a restraining order lifted.

Stephens, in an email sent to reporters on Wednesday, said he gave to Restoring America because he was concerned about President Obama's liberal agenda and that he supported conservative values. Stephens said he did not direct Restoring America to support a particular campaign or candidate. Stephens also denied that there was any collusion or cooperation between Restoring America and any candidate's campaign.

Corporations and individuals can give unlimited money to an independent group such as Restoring America. But it is against the state's campaign finance laws for a candidate's campaign and an independent group to coordinate campaign strategy or message.

Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon said at a press conference on Thursday that it was time for Williams and Stephens to "come clean and admit they were working together to evade Kentucky laws and get Williams elected. How stupid do they think we are?"

Logsdon said Stephens has a history of supporting Williams' candidacy, including hosting a fund-raiser for Williams at his Russell County home that raised $62,700 just 15 days before Restoring America started its TV ads.

Donald Storm, the chairman of Williams' campaign, denied that there was any coordination between the campaign and Restoring America in a statement issued Wednesday evening.

In its amended report, Restoring America said it still disputes that it was required to report its contributor.

In an accompanying letter to the registry, Restoring America's treasurer, Mike Blankenbecler of Columbus, Ohio, said the group had planned to air ads on issues in Ohio. Those efforts have been hampered by the Kentucky litigation and its "chilling effect on prospective donors," he said. It is important for Restoring America to say it planned to get involved in elections in other states.

In its legal filings this week, the group compared itself to the Republican Governors Association, which received $1 million from Stephens earlier this year, according to IRS filings.

The state registry allowed the RGA to transfer some of its money to another independent committee in Kentucky called Bluegrass Prosperity without identifying individual donors. But the registry said the RGA would have had to identify donors if the RGA raised money in the state exclusively for a Kentucky race.

Stephens, a Russell County businessman, is the owner of Stephens Pipe and Steel.

According to its expenditure reports, Restoring America has spent more than $864,600 on advertisements opposing Beshear and $540,000 on advertisements supporting Williams. It also has spent roughly $15,000 supporting Rep. James Comer, a Republican who is running for agriculture commissioner.

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