PHOENIX - Saying the law needs some teeth, a Senate panel voted 6-1 Tuesday to make the kind of campaign finance violation Attorney General Tom Horne is accused of a crime, punishable by time in state prison.
SB 1336 would not affect the ongoing civil complaint against Horne; his aide, Kathleen Winn; or Business Leaders of Arizona, the organization she formed to help Horne get elected. They are accused of illegally coordinating the activities and spending of her independent expenditure committee with his campaign.
The measure would apply only to future incidents.
But Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Daniel Seiden said there need to be real penalties, with real consequences, to deter future violations. Current laws carry only a civil fine that equals three times the illegally spent amount.
"We run the risk of creating an environment where, whether or not someone would cheat to get into office ... would kind of be nothing more than a math equation," he told members of the Senate Committee on Elections. Leaving the law as is leaves conspirators free to decide the political benefits are worth the possible financial penalty if caught.
Separately, the committee voted along party lines to make it a crime for anyone who is not a family member to deliver an individual's early ballot to the polls. Republicans said SB 1003 protects the integrity of the ballots; Democrats charged it is designed to suppress the votes of minorities and the elderly who often get help from volunteers.
The panel also gave unanimous approval to SB 1335, which bars the secretary of state, as the chief elections officer, from serving on any other candidate's campaign committee.
The independent expenditure proposal, crafted by Sen. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix, drew fire from attorney Tim LaSota, who is defending Winn and her committee.
"Putting this powerful and blunt tool with a very poorly worded statute in the hands of a new group of prosecutors is simply something I would not recommend," he said.
The civil case against Horne and Winn stems from an FBI investigation that Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said found Winn illegally coordinated expenses with Horne when she was supposedly running an independent committee designed to promote Horne's 2010 bid for attorney general - coordination Montgomery said last year violates state election laws.
"I believe the current enforcement provisions are inadequate to prevent the kind of conduct we're trying to prohibit," Montgomery said previously of the civil penalties Horne and Winn face. "At the end of the day, there really is no sanction in the law for the conduct that would really deter someone from engaging in it again in the future."
The law provides a penalty equal to three times the $513,340 Montgomery contends Winn's committee spent illegally on Horne's behalf. This legislation would make it a Class 5 felony, which carries anywhere from six months to 2 1/2 years in state prison, to knowingly make an independent expenditure of at least $25,000 that was not truly independent.
SB 1336 also would expand the law to make it a crime, with a similar penalty, for anyone who receives money for a false independent expenditure.
The civil case against Horne and Winn is now in court, with the pair fighting Montgomery's effort to force them to pay the civil penalty.