Politics & Government

GOP state senator suing to overturn Kentucky laws limiting campaign donations

Sen. John Schickel
Sen. John Schickel

Republican state Sen. John Schickel and two Libertarian political candidates are suing to overturn state laws limiting campaign donations to $1,000 and prohibiting gifts to legislators from Frankfort lobbyists.

The politicians say the laws violate their constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection by restricting their access to people who want to help them. But state regulators say the laws are meant to prevent bribery at the state Capitol. Most were enacted after Operation BOPTROT, an FBI investigation in 1992 that exposed 15 current or former legislators who sold their votes. Don Blandford, the House speaker, was among those sent to prison.

"The problem was, the relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists in Frankfort had become entirely inappropriate and too cozy," said John Schaaf, executive director of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission. "After BOPTROT, Kentucky decided to establish a more professional, arm's length relationship between the legislature and lobbyists. Our legislative ethics law is now one of the strongest, if not the strongest, in the country."

Last month, Schickel, of Union; Kentucky House candidate David Watson, of Benton; and Pendleton County Judge-Executive candidate Ken Moellman Jr. sued the Legislative Ethics Commission and the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance in U.S. District Court in Covington.

They are challenging the state's $1,000-per-election contribution limit to individual candidates. They also want the court to strike down ethics rules prohibiting Frankfort lobbyists from donating campaign money to legislators or legislative candidates; barring the employers of lobbyists from donating while the General Assembly is in session; and outlawing gifts from lobbyists to legislators, including private meals.

"They have gone so far overboard with these rules that it's ridiculous," said Christopher Wiest, an attorney for Schickel and the others. "If you're a legislator and a lobbyist is your next-door neighbor, and he invites you over to his place for a Christmas party, you can't accept, because it might be considered a form of entertainment or a thing of value."

Schickel, who did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday, previously tried to double the state's $1,000 campaign donation limit with language the Republican-led Senate tucked into a last-minute amendment in the 2015 General Assembly. But the Democratic-led House blocked that maneuver, criticizing it for a lack of transparency.

Schickel "doesn't think he can get the House to go along with him on these issues," Wiest said Wednesday. "He thinks he could get a bill through the Senate, but if it can't get through the House, why spend time spinning his wheels on it?"

In the lawsuit, Schickel said he expects to need up to $350,000 next year to defend his Northern Kentucky Senate seat from challengers. The current donation limit has allowed him to raise only $97,719 from about 150 donors so far, he said. A single district-wide mailing could cost him $20,000 during his general election, he said.

Independent groups that can raise vast sums and don't necessarily have to disclose their donors could get involved in his race, Schickel said, putting him at a further disadvantage if they oppose him.

There are Frankfort lobbyists willing to give Schickel money, and existing donors able to pay him more than $1,000, but the senator has "a legitimate fear of criminal and civil enforcement," according to the suit. Some violations would be Class D felonies.

In the suit, Watson, who intends to run in 2016 as a Libertarian candidate for a Western Kentucky House seat, observed that state law allows "caucus committees" to raise $2,500 annually per donor for each legislative chamber's political caucus. That lets the Democratic and Republican candidates benefit from a large, secondary source of campaign support not available to third-party or independent candidates like himself.

This fund-raising exemption amounts to "viewpoint discrimination to protect Republican and Democratic party candidates," the suit alleged.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman. The two state regulatory agencies have until Oct. 6 to respond.

"As an agency, we don't make the laws, we enforce the laws as they were written by the legislature. These are the laws written by the legislature," said Emily Dennis, general counsel to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Federal courts have proven willing in recent years to overturn campaign-finance restrictions that judges believe violate the constitutional rights of donors and candidates.

The U.S. Supreme Court in separate cases has ruled that political spending is a protected form of speech, partially lifting bans on corporate and union money and scrapping overall limits on how much a donor may contribute in one federal election cycle. Lower courts struck down Kentucky's $50,000 limit on the amount that gubernatorial candidates can loan to their campaigns — and a corresponding ban on asking for contributions after the election to repay the loan — as well as a $100-per-donor cap for Kentucky school board races.

"The general mood has been extreme skepticism toward any restriction on the ability to use money in politics," said Joshua Douglas, who teaches election law at the University of Kentucky. "What opponents of campaign-finance reform are looking for now is a challenge to individual limits on campaign contributions, an ideal case they could use to tee this issue up before the Supreme Court."