An appellate court heard arguments Monday asking for enforcement of a 2010 civil court order directing the Akron law director to uphold the city’s longstanding campaign finance limits by investigating the mayor’s finances over several election cycles since 2007.
In 1998, Akron voters approved campaign finance limits of $300 for contributions to mayoral and at-large council candidates and $100 for ward council candidates.
Attorney Warner Mendenhall, longtime opponent of Mayor Don Plusquellic, told a three-judge panel of Akron’s 9th District Court of Appeals that former city Law Director Max Rothal had a duty to enforce the 1998 law, which passed by a nearly 60 percent majority vote, he said.
“I can assure you,” Mendenhall said in his appellate argument, “no investigation was embarked upon.”
He said Plusquellic filed campaign finance reports showing donations, in excess of the $300 limit, totaling some $73,000.
Mendenhall made the argument on behalf of Akron resident Patti Longville, a political activist who campaigned for the campaign finance limits, and, with Mendenhall, advocated the unsuccessful recall attempt against Plusquellic in 2009.
Appeals Judge Carla Moore, presiding judge in the case, told Mendenhall and city attorneys the court was taking the matter under advisement and would issue a written decision.
Also hearing the case were Judges Donna Carr and Sheila Farmer, a Stark County 5th District Court of Appeals judge. Farmer was sitting by appointment as a visiting judge on behalf of Eve Belfance and Clair E. Dickinson, both of whom had conflicts, a court administrator said.
In March 2010, Summit County Common Pleas Judge Lynne S. Callahan issued a civil court order, known as a “mandamus,” directing the city law director to enforce the 1998 law regarding contributions to Plusquellic’s campaign “in the 2007 election and subsequent years.”
Callahan issued the order after a civil complaint filed by Longville, with Mendenhall as her attorney.
There are no criminal penalties for violations of the 1998 law, Mendenhall said in his appeals court argument.
However, he said Plusquellic did have 10 days to repay any campaign contributions exceeding the limit, or face triple damages.
Columbus attorney J. Corey Colombo, who opposed Mendenhall’s argument on behalf of the city, told the panel that, early in the period of 2007, Plusquellic was a candidate “highly considering a statewide run [for governor] and was raising money, and spending money, on par with a statewide campaign.”
Under Ohio election law, Colombo said, it’s not uncommon for a big-city mayor or council candidate to test the waters in statewide elections and, as such, “you can only have one campaign committee at a time.”
Furthermore, Colombos argued, in March 2009, Rothal, now retired, sent Longville and Mendenhall a two-page written analysis of their complaints, saying he did not feel there were any violations of the campaign limits.
At the end of Rothal’s letter, Colombo stressed, it is pointed out that Plusquellic was not a declared candidate for mayor at the time the funds in question were contributed.
In fact, in Judge Callahan’s 2010 civil order, she stated that Plusquellic was not a declared mayoral candidate until the filing of his petitions on June 28, 2007.
Callahan noted in her order that any statewide candidate would be permitted under Ohio campaign finance reform laws to accept “significantly higher” contributions than those permitted for local candidates.
City lawyers had pointed out that contributions were made to the “Don Plusquellic Committee” in March 2007, a full three months before his formal mayoral candidacy, and as such Plusquellic was allowed to accept those.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at email@example.com.