CHARLESTON – State Supreme Court candidate Allen Loughry says Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is crippling his campaign with rulings on the public financing pilot project for Court candidates.
He says Tennant's office is not implementing a section of the law that would allow his campaign to receive up to $1.1 million if other candidates in the race reach certain spending limits.
"The Secretary of State's refusal to abide by the law is not only a violation of her constitutional duties, it also is a slap in the face to the state legislators who passed the law, as well as to then-Gov. Joe Manchin who pushed for and later signed the law," Loughry, a Republican, said. "Her unprecedented decision not to follow the law has the potential of singlehandedly destroying the pilot project in addition to negatively impacting the entire Supreme Court election."
Loughry called Tennant's actions "one of the most open, stunning and surprising abuses of power in the last 10 years in West Virginia."
Loughry's campaign already has received $400,000 as part of the pilot project, but could receive more. Loughry appeared before the state Election Commission last week to ask the commission to force Tennant and her office to abide by the law.
Loughry wanted the commission to vote whether the provision would be allowed. Tennant made a motion, which was approved, to put off the decision until later.
He said if the commission had made a decision, he could have challenged it in court or started raising money like the other candidates for the Court.
"This has been unbelievable," Loughry told MetroNews. "I have followed the laws. I have worked in this program. I have worked very hard in the program, and now I'm stuck in limbo constantly."
Loughry said he doesn't know now if the matching money will eventually be released.
"This is absolutely inexcusable at this point," he told MetroNews. "I need a decision to move forward."
A spokesman for Tennant's office said the decision to issue the funds isn't up to the Secretary of State's office.
"The matching funds are paid solely by the State Election Commission, not by Secretary Tennant," Jake Glance said Thursday. "Secretary Tennant is just one voting member of the SEC. There are four voting members.
"Until an opponent has spent $420,000 -- and that hasn't happened yet -- no matching funds are due. Until that happens, there will be no money dispersed by the SEC. The Secretary of State's office alone cannot cut a check."
At the SEC meeting, Tennant defended her office and asked Loughry to be specific about what law it isn't following. She also noted that she's been a supporter of the public financing of campaigns and was the first person to contribute to this pilot project.
Loughry accuses Tennant of helping well-financed campaigns "buy a seat" on the bench.
"One of the reasons the Legislature passed this law was to prevent candidates for the West Virginia Supreme Court from buying an election," Loughry said. "Tennant's actions, however, make it almost a certainty that at least one of the two seats up for election this year will be bought as evidenced by the astronomical spending during the primary election."
Loughry noted that Tennant recently made a big issue about having to abide by the law when she allowed convicted felon Keith Judd to run against President Obama, but now refuses to follow the law in this case.
"She can't pick and choose what laws she wants to enforce," Loughry said. "I don't get the same consideration as a convicted felon sitting in a federal penitentiary in Texas?"
Tennant has said an opinion provided by state Attorney General Darrell McGraw after the U.S. Supreme Court shot down a campaign financing law in Arizona allows her to not implement the provision.
"In spite of the fact that the Arizona law drastically differs from West Virginia's law, the Secretary of State was certainly within her rights to seek an Attorney's General advisory opinion, just as the Attorney General acted properly in providing one," Loughry said. "The problem is what occurred next.
"Instead of considering the Attorney General's opinion and then seeking a remedy in the courts, the Secretary of State took it upon herself to make the unilateral decision not to follow the law."
Loughry said Tennant's actions are an encroachment by the executive branch into the judiciary's function.
"While laws sometimes are unconstitutional, the Secretary of State is not permitted to simply disregard those laws she believes are unconstitutional any more than a private citizen could decide which ones he or she thinks are constitutional or not," Loughry said. "It requires the authority of a court to invalidate a law before one can be excused from complying with it.
"That is fundamental and the Secretary of State is not authorized by statute or otherwise to make unilateral decisions on the constitutionality of laws."
Loughry also said Tennant's actions are why many citizens are frustrated with public officials.
"The Secretary of State is sending the message to the more than 700 people who contributed to my campaign, as well as to all of the State's registered voters, that their voices don't matter," Loughry said. "People just want their elected officials to strictly follow the Constitution and to represent them with honor, integrity, and high ethical standards.
"Just like all West Virginians, I expect no less from any of our elected officials in this state.
"After getting the Attorney General's opinion, Natalie Tennant should have gone to the Courts. I know it's confusing for people who aren't following this matter closely, but how can she constantly and publicly say we're not following this law on this and then try to hide behind the SEC as a voting member of the SEC and vote to take no action? It's an attempt to prevent me or anyone else from challenging this law."