CHARLESTON – Members of the State Election Commission went into a closed-door session Wednesday, declining to talk publicly about lawsuits filed against them over the constitutionality of the West Virginia Public Campaign Financing Pilot Program.
All four members of the SEC — Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, chairman Robert Rupp, Gary Collias and William Renzelli — participated in the meeting Wednesday morning.
In addition to numerous requests for candidate replacements, the SEC was expected to discuss the lawsuits pending against it.
In the federal lawsuit, Charleston attorney Michael Callaghan — also the former chairman of the state Democratic Party — claims that the pilot program violates the First and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution by “unduly impinging upon protected political speech and association” as set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett.
Specifically, Callaghan argues that the matching funds provision of the act is unconstitutional.
Last week, a federal judge granted Supreme Court candidate Allen Loughry’s motion to intervene in the lawsuit over the pilot program, which was established in 2010 for candidates seeking a seat on the state’s high court.
Loughry, a Republican, is the only candidate in this year’s Court race to opt into the program, which state lawmakers passed in an attempt to reduce the influence of special interest money.
In addition, he filed a lawsuit in the state Supreme Court, seeking to force the SEC to follow the existing laws and provide his campaign with the additional funding.
In his 26-page petition for writ of mandamus, filed with the state’s high court July 30, Loughry argues that the SEC “failed to carry out the unambiguous duty” imposed under the pilot program.
“Through this failure, the commission violated the statutory command of W.Va. Code 3-12-11(e), which requires the commission to authorize the release of funds once a determination has been made that the conditions for a release of supplemental funds have been met,” his petition states.
“Due to the commission’s failure to follow the law and perform this ministerial duty, the commission also failed to perform its duty, working with the offices of the State Treasurer and State Auditor, to cause the funds to be disbursed to Petitioner Loughry’s campaign.”
As a result, Loughry argues that he has been and continues to be injured by the commission’s failure to act, “and his ability to wage a campaign of the caliber his supporters contemplated when they made qualifying donations to his campaign has been severely undermined.”
In a scheduling order last week, the respondents in the state case — Tennant, Rupp, Collias, Renzelli, State Auditor Glen Gainer III and State Treasurer John Perdue — were ordered to file a response to Loughry’s writ of mandamus on or before Thursday.
Despite this week’s deadline, no public mention of the lawsuits was made during the SEC’s meeting Wednesday.
At the opening of the meeting, Rupp immediately asked to move up the discussion of the lawsuits.
According to the agenda — sent out beforehand — the discussion would have been held towards the end of the meeting.
Members of the SEC then agreed to go into executive session to discuss the matter, saying they would be receiving “confidential legal counsel” from their lawyer.
The commission was in executive session for 15 to 20 minutes before returning to regular session.
Members did not mention the lawsuits or any details of their discussion then — nor at the end of the meeting during its “member comments and questions” period.