Judge says he'll rule soon on Benjamin financing case

By Chris Dickerson | Feb 29, 2016

CHARLESTON – A Kanawha Circuit Court judge says he will rule soon in a case over the $525,000 in campaign finance money awarded to state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin.

Beth Walker, one of Benjamin’s opponents, filed a lawsuit saying Benjamin didn’t meet all of the requirements to receive the money. In a hearing Friday, Walker attorney Thomas Ryan said Benjamin’s re-election campaign missed deadlines for filing the application for certification and a report of exploratory campaign contributions. Walker’s campaign raised the same issues earlier this month during a State Election Commission hearing, but the panel ruled Benjamin met the qualifications for funding.

Walker appealed the ruling to Kanawha Circuit Court, where Judge Tod Kaufman is hearing the matter. Walker claims the SEC wrongly certified Benjamin for the financing. She also says Benjamin’s campaign missed deadlines for filing the application for certification and a report of exploratory campaign contributions.

Kaufman says he will rule on the case in a matter of days.

In hearings on the matter, the SEC said those were not valid technical issues to deny Benjamin the money under the Supreme Court Public Campaign Financing Act. Walker’s petition also says the commission was wrong in deciding Benjamin’s campaign had raised enough qualifying funds to receive the public financing.

The law says a state Supreme Court candidate has to raise $35,000 in qualifying contributions from 500 contributors, and it says the maximum contribution can be no more than $100.

“The Walker campaign believes in the rule of law and that the law should be followed – especially by candidates seeking judicial office,” Walker spokesman Joe Reidy said last week. “There are legitimate questions about qualification for $525,000 in public funds that the court needs to decide.”

In her petition, Walker notes that Benjamin’s campaign filed electronic qualifying reports with Secretary of State Natalie Tennant’s office. The Oct. 1 report showed $0 in qualifying contributions. The Nov. 1 report showed $1,360 in qualifying contributions. The Dec. 1 report showed a total of $2,659 collected. The Jan. 1 report showed a total of $6,704 collected. A Jan. 31 amended report added $10 to the total, and the Feb. 1 report showed a total of $41,511 collected.

“Notably, Benjamin’s February 1 report reflected a flood of monies and more than half of his qualifying contributions -- $10,466 on January 29 and $15,702 on January 30 respectively – that poured into the Supreme Court race at the eleventh hour at the end of the January 30 qualifying period,” the petition states.

Walker seeks to have the court overturn the SEC decision making Benjamin eligible for public campaign financing and to order the Benjamin campaign to not spend the funds and to return it.

“Expenditure of those public monies, if not stayed pending the court’s review of the SEC’s decision, will irreparably harm Walker by affording Benjamin an improper advantage in the campaign for Supreme Court,” the petition states, adding, “As a result, Walker’s own ability to compete and campaign for the position will be improperly impaired.”

After the SEC vote earlier this month, Benjamin campaign representative Anne Charnock read a statement from Benjamin at the hearing, stating, “In creating the Public Campaign Finance program, the Legislature recognized that increasing expensive judicial elections funded by high-dollar interests have created a concern among voters that such interests have too much influence in our judicial system.”

“The Public Campaign Finance program not only enhances public confidence in the fairness and impartiality of our courts, it also ensures that the West Virginian who is able to give just a single dollar knows that his or her participation in the selection process is just as important as the $1,000 given by a politically connected insider, special interest or out-of-state group.”

At the same meeting, the SEC also certified public campaign financing for Supreme Court justice candidate Bill Wooton. Walker claimed Wooton should be disqualified for allegedly filing his application for certification a day late.

Walker, Benjamin and Wooton are joined by former Justice and state Attorney General Darrell McGraw and Clay County attorney Wayne King as candidates for the state Supreme Court.

Starting this year, all judicial elections in West Virginia are non-partisan. That means the candidates aren’t tied to political parties. It also means the May 10 primary is the only election for judicial seats.

If Walker's petition is denied, Benjamin and Wooton will become the second and third Supreme Court candidates to run publicly financed campaigns for state Supreme Court. Justice Allen Loughry was the first, when the public financing law was a pilot project, and won election in 2012.

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Kanawha Circuit Court West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals

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