CHARLESTON – The 2014 elections are winding down – and for many of us it’s not a minute too soon.
Since last year, West Virginia voters have been bombarded with television and radio ads, direct mail pieces, social media and more, urging us to support or defeat one candidate or another. Now it’s come down to just the voter and a few minutes at the ballot box.
Voting is one of the most significant rights we enjoy as Americans, and it is important that every West Virginian exercise that right on Nov. 4.
It is equally important, however, that voters have accurate and complete information on both candidates and the individuals and organizations that support those candidates. Only then can they make informed decisions. That is why stringent campaign finance laws exist.
Candidates must report every penny raised, who donated it and how it was spent. The same is true for political action committees. In recent years, independent expenditures to influence voters have become a big part of elections as well.
Just like candidates and PACs, organizations that do independent expenditures must tell voters how much was spent and who donated it. It’s the law.
So the question is: Does the so-called Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse believe that it’s above the law?
According to independent expenditure reports filed with the West Virginia Secretary of State, CALA has spent more than $288,000 in just three weeks to influence our elections. Although these reports require CALA to tell West Virginia voters how the expenditures are funded, not a single penny is disclosed.
If CALA is legitimate and receiving its support from West Virginia “citizens,” then why won’t it disclose its donors — especially after spending more than a quarter-million dollars in just a few weeks?
This isn’t new. CALA has misrepresented itself and refused to disclose its donors for more than 20 years. While it claims to be a West Virginia “citizens” organization, it’s not. CALAs were the brainchild of a Washington, D.C., PR firm.
CALAs are funded by “large corporate donors, including tobacco, insurance, oil and gas, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, medical associations and automobile manufacturers.” The groups are “part of a national corporate-backed network of ground groups that receive substantial assistance from [the American Tort Reform Association – another front group], APCO and some of America’s biggest corporations.” (The CALA Files, Center for Justice and Democracy)
West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse began operating in 1994. From Day 1, the group has refused to answer questions about who is funding the effort. At the news conference announcing its formation, then spokesperson Jack Klim “would not say who is funding the group and its campaign” (Associated Press, printed in Charleston Gazette Aug. 31, 1994).
Of course, CALA head Greg Thomas has his own decade-long history of hiding the truth from West Virginia voters. After all, he was the consultant behind Don Blankenship’s multi-million dollar campaign hidden under the name “And for the Sake of the Kids.”
What is equally outrageous is that while CALA is refusing to reveal its donors on its finance reports, it is attacking both candidates and organizations who have filed the accurate and complete financial disclosures. CALA scanned those reports and then issued scathing attacks on candidates for accepting contributions from lawyers.
CALA had that information only because those candidates followed the law — the very law it refuses to obey.
At the same time CALA attacked LAWPAC, the political action committee of the West Virginia Association for Justice, for making contributions to candidates. Voters can access LAWPAC reports and see which candidates received support as well as every contribution to the PAC.
That’s how CALA got the information. We followed state campaign law. CALA hasn’t.
The truth is that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Like its big-money corporate backers, who want to weaken and destroy critical laws that hold them accountable in our courtrooms, CALA wants one set of rules for itself and another for West Virginians. CALA and its backers believe that while West Virginia consumers, workers and small businesses are required to follow the law, they don’t have to bother.
It needs to stop now.
Majestro is the president of the West Virginia Association for Justice and a Charleston attorney.