Secretary-of-state race shadowed by 'dark money'

Mary Jo Pitzel, The Republic | | August 6, 2014

Ken Bennett has, as Arizona secretary of state, overseen countless candidate filings, advocated for proof of citizenship to register to vote, and preached the need to return early ballots.

But during his 5 ½ years in office, he has never waded into the immigration debate. Nor has his office had a say on gun rights.

The same goes for former Secretary of State Jan Brewer, now Arizona's governor, and her predecessors in the state's No. 2 political post.

But an outside spending group is interjecting those issues into this year's GOP primary, arguing that it's important to know where candidates stand on those topics, because the secretary of state is next in line to become governor if the office is vacated.

By raising these issues, the Free Enterprise Club has effectively highlighted what has become the central issue of the race: the role of anonymous funding, or so-called dark money, in campaigns.


The club, which isn't required to disclose the source of its money, has put $391,026 into mailers and signs supporting state Rep. Justin Pierce's campaign through July. The total rises to $560,808 when club spending that advocates the defeat of his opponents is added in.

The money is more than double the $195,280 that Pierce, as a publicly funded candidate, has available for his campaign. And it is likely to eclipse spending by the other two Republican candidates: businessman Wil Cardon and state Sen. Michele Reagan, who are running with private contributions.

Cardon and Reagan have both seized on the "dark-money" spending to highlight their calls for transparency in political transactions and to distinguish themselves from Pierce and his benefactor.

Both note that they have to disclose all their donors. Reagan has received thousands of dollars from Capitol lobbyists, business owners and attorneys, as well as $37,800 in a family loan. As of May 31, the latest record available, she reported $295,000 in contributions.

Cardon, who runs dozens of businesses related to his family's gas and real-estate fortune, has received donations from business owners, many from out of state, as well as attorneys and long-established Mesa families.

Paradise Valley resident Robert Walton, of Walmart fame, gave $1,000. In addition, Cardon has lent his campaign $133,500, bringing his contributions to $208,000 as of May 31. (The next reports are not due until Aug. 22.)

As a publicly funded candidate under the state's Clean Elections system, Pierce gets $195,280 for the primary. He has also benefited from the Free Enterprise Club's spending, a fact that has brought an uncomfortable spotlight on his campaign as opponents and others speculate on the source of the money.

Because the club is a non-profit corporation that "primarily" engages in social-welfare issues, it does not have to disclose its donors.

That hasn't stopped Cardon from naming names. He suspects Arizona Public Service is bankrolling much of the club's spending, saying it's a "thank you" to Justin's father, Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce, who has voted favorably for the utility.

Commissioner Pierce, in a statement to The Arizona Republic, denied the allegation and said the media has circulated untrue statements.

"It should go without saying, but to set the record straight, I have never made a deal with APS to cast a vote in exchange for a benefit to my son Justin Pierce's campaign for Secretary of State," he wrote.

APS won't directly answer if it is channeling money to the club on behalf of the Pierces. Instead, it notes it does contribute during elections.

"Although we typically do not comment on individual contributions, we routinely support public officials, candidates and causes that are pro-business and supportive of a sustainable energy future for Arizona, regardless of party affiliation," spokesman James McDonald said in a statement. (Read More)

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