All is fair in love and war, but apparently not in politics.
Former state Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, is suing his opponent in the last election for violating state campaign finance laws.
The suit claims Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine – who beat Queen in November – misled voters about who paid for a series of television commercials. In a tag line at end of the commercials, Hise said that he paid for the ad, when in fact the state Republican Party did.
If true, it is a violation of the state law known as “Stand By Your Ad,” which requires whoever pays for a political ad to identify themselves. By falsely stating Hise paid for the ad when he didn’t, the commercials got a price discount only available to candidates and potentially curried more favor with voters, according to the suit.
“He’s got to play by the rules and be fair. If he doesn’t, then we have no recourse but to file a lawsuit,” Queen said.
Hise is one of 10 Republican state Senate candidates accused of the same misstep, and one of three being sued for it. Hise said the suit has no merit, however, as did his attorney.
“We deny the allegations of the complaint. We think the lawsuit has no foundation in fact or law,” said Thomas Farr, a Raleigh attorney representing Hise and the other Republicans targeted by the same suit. “We are confident the Republican senators will be vindicated.”
The N.C. Republican Party is also named in the suit, and likewise rejected the accusation.
“We believe this is a frivolous complaint and deny the allegations,” said Mark Braden, spokesperson for the state Republican Party. “We are confident that the N.C. Republican Party and Sen. Hise will prevail.”
The N.C. Republican Party bought $1.4 million worth of television commercials for 10 Senate candidates across the state, all of whom won their seats. Hise got more than most, with $277,000 in commercials advocating him over Queen.
When buying the ads, the Republican Party used an advertising agency called American Media and Advocacy, based in Virginia. The agency arranged for the commercials to air on various TV stations, but when doing so, misrepresented who was paying for the ads, according to the suit.
American Media told the TV stations the ads were being purchased by candidates themselves, rather than by the Republican Party.
“That is not a trivial matter. That is a fundamental violation of the campaign finance law,” said Frank Queen, a Waynesville attorney representing Joe Sam Queen.
N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, is among those that ran commercials saying he paid for them when in fact he didn’t, according to the suit. Davis defeated former state Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, but Snow has not joined in the suit.
Stand By Your Ad
Democrats took a beating in the election last fall, losing control of both the N.C. Senate and House for the first time in over a century.
Despite how it might look, the lawsuits are not a case of Democrats being sore losers, according to John Wallace, a Raleigh attorney representing all three Democrats who chose to file suits.
When North Carolina created the Stand By Your Ad provision in 1999, it was only the second state in the country to make such a law.
The law was inspired by the rise in ugly attack ads. It forced those running ads to clearly identify themselves “so voters can hold the sponsor of the ad accountable,” Wallace said.
The popularity of Stand By Your Ad grew, and a version of it eventually became federal law in 2002.
“I think it is possible it keeps people honest,” said Chris Cooper, political science professor at Western Carolina University. “It doesn’t allow you to shoot at the opponent and not say who you are.”
Voters often view ads run by the candidate more favorably than ads backed by the party.
“In many markets, it is advantageous to the candidate to purchase purportedly in his own name,” the suit states.
A study of the Stand By Your Ad law by Brigham Young University showed voters put more stock in ads that were endorsed by the candidate himself. Ads endorsed by the candidate instead of a political party may curry more favor among independent voters, according to Cooper.
Cooper pointed to Congressman Heath Shuler, D-N.C., as a prime example. In his conservative leaning district, an ad paid for by the Democratic Party is the last thing Shuler would want, Cooper said. In fact, he bent over backwards to distance himself from the national party.
If Hise wanted to take credit for the ads, the Republican Party should have first donated the money to Hise, and then allowed Hise in turn to buy his own commercials. But for whatever reason, the party chose to control the ad buys.
“There are circumstances in which parities may determine that it is safer, better or faster not to contribute money to candidates,” Wallace said.
In some cases, the party may want control the ad in order to control the message, according to Cooper. Or, the party may think it can do a better job than the candidate.
“You have decades of experience at the state party level so the candidate might prefer that, too,” Cooper said.
If the party had donated the money to Hise and let him buy his own ads, the donation would have showed up on Hise’s campaign finance reports.
Tracking the money
Donations received through September are reported on a candidate’s third quarter fundraising report. During October, a candidate must report any contribution over $1,000 within 48 hours. The disclosure alerts other candidates what kind of spending their opponent has at his disposal.
“Anybody can see the money coming in and out,” Frank Queen said.
But since the money for the TV commercials didn’t come to Hise first, it didn’t show up in his fundraising reports. While the spending was indeed reported by the N.C. Republican Party, it is harder to track outside spending on a candidate’s behalf, known as soft money, as opposed to hard money spent by the candidate himself, Frank Queen said.
Since Queen monitored Hise’s fundraising reports, when a plethora of commercials began showing up in the final weeks of the campaign, he realized that Hise didn’t have the money to be paying for the ads himself.
Queen sent Hise a warning letter, which Hise received through certified mail on Oct. 29, asking him to stop running the commercials with the false tag line bearing Hise’s name.
In the letter, Queen told Hise he was “misleading the voters of the district in which you are running for office.”
“Furthermore, this misrepresentation of who is paying for the advertisement is in direct violation of the Stand By Your Ad laws, which require the group or candidate paying for each ad to specifically identify themselves and to take responsibility for the content of those advertisements,” the letter stated.
But the ads continued to run through Election Day.
Candidates are entitled to cheaper television advertising rates than third parties buying an ad on the candidate’s behalf. By law, candidates buying political ads are entitled to the lowest rate tier that a station offers.
The ads were 20 to 50 percent cheaper under the lower rate tier than it could have had the commercials been bought by its own name rather than Hise’s, the suit claims.
“By falsely representing that it was paid for by the candidate’s committee, they qualified for and indeed paid the lowest rate that was available, lower than they would have otherwise,” Frank Queen said.
While complaints have been filed with the N.C. Board of Elections, the state statute spells out an interesting recourse for violations: the other candidate is instructed to file a civil lawsuit. Thus the suit being filed by Queen is the only mechanism of enforcing the law, Frank Queen said.
What does Queen stands to gain? He won’t get his seat back, but if victorious Hise would be required under state statute to pay Queen an amount equal to the cost of the ads that carried the false tag line, as well as attorney fees Queen incurs in waging the suit.
Hise and the N.C. Republican Party will file a response to the suit in early April, Farr said.
The Smoky Mountain News Intern DeeAnna Haney contributed to this article.