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Arizona election regulators have taken note of records showing that Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump was in regular contact with the campaigns of candidates he supported and a “dark money” group that helped get them elected, and they want to see and inspect those records themselves.
The Arizona Citizens Clean Election Commission has asked Checks & Balances Project, a Washington, D.C.-based 501(c)(4) non-profit advocacy organization, for copies of text message logs and communications in order to determine whether a further investigation is warranted.
Coordination between candidate campaigns and independent expenditure groups is illegal. While the communication logs do not include message content, Tom Collins, the executive director of the Clean Elections Commission, said his office wants to see the logs, particularly given the timing of the communications.
According to the text metadata, Stump used a phone paid for by the Corporation Commission to text with Scot Mussi, the executive director of Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit “dark money” group, while also texting with Republican Corporation Commission candidates Tom Forese and Doug Little, as well as their campaign manager. The communications took place while Mussi’s group was in the middle of a roughly $161,000 ad campaign aimed at helping elect Forese and Little.
The logs detail texts sent to and from Stump between May 2014 and March of this year, and were obtained as part of a sweeping public records request by Checks & Balances Project.
Because Forese and Little used the Clean Elections public financing system, they are subject to more stringent campaign finance oversight and regulation than non-participating candidates.On July 23, 2014, Mussi’s group spent $97,000 on mailers for Forese and Little. On July 24, 2014, Stump and Mussi traded eight texts, and Stump and Little exchanged 17 text messages. On July 25, 2014, Stump exchanged 18 texts with Alan Heywood, the campaign manager for Forese and Little. The two had not texted one another since at least prior to May 1, 2014. That evening and the next morning, Stump and Mussi texted again five times. Stump and Forese texted four times. On July 28, 2014, Mussi’s groups spent another $64,000 on mailers for Forese and Little. Mussi and Stump didn’t text again until November. By the end of the campaign, Arizona Free Enterprise Club spent approximately $450,000 to help Forese and Little. Stump and Heywood texted each other three times one day in mid-August, but not again until at least after March 11, 2015.
“The Checks & Balances report, and some of the reporting of it, discusses the communication among a set of people that includes an independent expenditure group and two participating candidates,” Collins said. “Around this time (of the $161,000 expenditure), there’s a nexus apparently between these three or four people.”
Kory Langhofer, an elections attorney with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, said communications among Stump, Mussi, Forese, Little and their campaign manager could raise questions about coordination that may have run afoul of campaign laws. Proving it, though, is difficult, Langhofer said.
“It has to be really specific. It’s not whether some information was passed back and forth, but whether someone can prove, by a preponderance (of the evidence), that an expenditure made by Free Enterprise Club or some other independent expenditure group was affected by information conveyed by the campaign, regardless of who it was passed through,” Langhofer said.
Communications would need to be significant to the campaign and the independent expenditure committee, Langhofer explained, and it would have to lead to action by the independent expenditure committee.
“We’re starting from the question of, ‘Is there something to look at here?’” Collins said. “We would like to see the documentation that these reports are based on, then make a judgment about whether we need to ask anyone else more questions about this.”
In the case that Collins decides to probe the issue further, candidates would be asked specific questions about their communications. If the responses warrant further action, Collins could recommend a full investigation into the matter to the five Clean Elections commissioners, who would vote on whether to formally investigate.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich is currently investigating a whistleblower complaint filed with his office in February that alleges Stump and former Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce facilitated electioneering from inside the commission.
“I don’t think it’s extraordinary. In fact, it’s prudent to contact the source of these reports and ask for the documentation they can provide,” Collins said.
Stump has said the text messages are nothing more than normal communication among friends and professional acquaintances. In an email responding to questions about the text logs, Stump said he and Mussi have been friends for years.
“We have had lunch on several occasions this past year, and we have been trying for months to coordinate a double-date to the Phoenix Symphony,” Stump said of the texts. “I would never have engaged in any inappropriate discussions regarding Scot’s political work.”