Two candidates vying for a slot on Ingham County’s board of commissioners soon could be forced to face consequences after County Clerk Barb Byrum accused them of multiple campaign finance law violations.
Incumbent Commissioner Dennis Louney and one of his challengers in the Democratic primary, Robert Pena, earlier this month received letters from Byrum that contended both had ran afoul of state election laws.
Byrum’s letter charges that Louney had repeatedly used his county email address to disseminate campaign literature. Byrum emphasized that taxpayers fund Louney’s office — and his email — as a county commissioner. Byrum labeled Louney’s missteps “personally offensive” and “clearly illegal.”
“I know I made these mistakes and certainly admit to them,” Louney said in an interview. “It wasn’t intentional. I changed my email and I hadn’t realized. I should have known better, but I didn’t realize I was violating any sort of law. There was no intention of trying to use county services toward my campaign.”
Pena said his violation stemmed largely from a lack of political wherewithal.
Byrum said Pena’s promotional materials — like yard signs and doorknob hangers failed to include a standard disclosure that listed who paid for the signage. And it wasn’t the first time that he was warned in the weeks leading up to next month’s primary.
“Please note that you have already received a letter regarding this issue and this is the second time I have communicated with you about campaign finance requirements,” Byrum wrote to Pena on July 13, adding that she had already warned him over a similar violation in a face-to-face meeting more than two weeks earlier.
Pena insisted he meant no harm, didn’t understand the law and vowed to correct any outstanding issues.
Both cases were referred to the secretary of state for further review. A department spokesman on Monday confirmed a complaint had been received about Louney but he had yet to receive anything about Pena. Officials said they will review the allegations for up to five days before they decide to investigate or dismiss each case.
Fred Woodhams, spokesman, said unwitting violations such as those committed by Pena and Louney are usually handled informally, sometimes with an agreement not to repeat the mistakes, sometimes with fines. Knowing violations can be punished as misdemeanors with a $1,000 or less fine and as much as a year in jail.
It’s not clear how much the candidates could be charged, but they’ll both remain on the ballot in August.
“I receive many campaign violation notices into the office, and that number usually increases as we get closer to the election date,” Byrum added. “I’m known for being a stickler when it comes to campaign finance law. I treat everyone equally — Republican or Democrat — because I expect them to comply with the law.”
Records indicate an unnamed person last month emailed Louney on his county email address to request a campaign yard sign. He replied the next day, thanked them for their support, promised the sign would be delivered and told them about a chance to pitch in with some weekend doorknocking ahead of the election.
A Freedom of Information Act Request filed with the county the following month by Alexis Ruble sought to pry loose Louney’s inbox for additional messages and included a copy of Louney’s response to the prior email. Ruble filed a complaint the same day to accuse Louney of abusing county resources to further his campaign.
“These (materials) are not educational and explicitly mention voting in the Democratic primary,” she wrote in the complaint. “It is unknown what other political purposes our government resources are being used for.”
Ruble also accused Louney of attaching his county email address to fliers and other promotional materials ahead of the election. And state law specifically forbids the use of county funds to further an incumbent’s election-oriented goals. It’s the same reason Louney can’t campaign during his board meetings.
Louney — who was also criticized by his challengers earlier this month for an alleged conflict of interest during a vote regarding a drainage project — suggested his other democratic opponent, Thomas Morgan, could again be the catalyst for the recent complaints. Louney hopes voters will understand that he’s an “honest person.”
Byrum confirmed that Morgan was fueling at least a portion of the recent complaints fielded by her office. He has “always been a friend,” she said. And that personal relationship — paired with another “prior relationship” with Louney — is why she chose to skip an endorsement in their particular district, she said.
Morgan said he previously volunteered for Byrum’s election campaigns but was never paid for any services.
“I feel like in some ways the email incident was a setup,” Louney added. “Someone asked me about a yard sign. It was two days later I had a complaint filed against me and that was the only email I received about a yard sign. It really is my own fault and I know that. I certainly understand that I violated the law here.”
Morgan said he doesn’t know Ruble and wasn’t involved with the reports against Louney. He did, however, notice the lack of disclaimers on Pena’s campaign materials and notified Byrum about the potential violation. It’s nothing personal, he said. He just wants to see everyone respect campaign finance laws.
“It’s unfortunate and it’s part of the reason why people have a deep distrust of people in politics, but I’m really just trying to stay positive,” Morgan said. “Campaign finance laws are something that should be taken seriously, especially with all the corporate influence going on in our politics today.”
Attempts to contact Ruble were unsuccessful. City Pulse also reviewed campaign finance statements for each of the county commission candidates. No other letters regarding alleged legal violations have been sent to any of the other 13 people vying for a slot on the commission.