Legal Equivalent of a Dirty Trick?

October 07, 1994

State Sen. John W. Derr of Frederick is running for re-election. He's a Republican. He believes his party's gubernatorial nominee, Ellen Sauerbrey, is "extremely popular" in his district. He wants to put her name on his campaign literature, so her supporters will vote for him.

Franklin P. Snodgrass III is president of the Republican Men's Club of Frederick. He wants to spend members' money on sample ballots, listing all Republican candidates running in the county.

Paul Stull is chairman of the Republican State Central Committee for Frederick County. He wants to spend the proceeds from Lincoln Day dinners to "let the voters know that our candidates will work closely and productively with Sauerbrey."

Those things are as traditional and honorable and necessary in American politics as bull roasts and campaign buttons. But Mr. Stull definitely can't do what he wants without harming the Sauerbrey campaign, and Messrs. Derr and Snodgrass probably can't, either.

Not if Deputy Attorney General Ralph Tyler's Sept. 23 ruling prevails. He said any funds spent by "a political party" must be deducted from the gubernatorial candidate's spending limit, if that candidate has agreed to accept public financing -- which Ms. Sauerbrey has done.

Mr. Tyler based his opinion on an administrative regulation that says "any expenditure by a political committee made with the knowledge or consent of the candidate, an agent of the candidate or an authorized committee of the candidate is attributed to the candidate's overall spending limit." If a candidate exceeds the limit, there are penalties.

Any co-ordinated efforts by a gubernatorial candidate and her party's central committee or allegedly independent groups should be counted against her spending limit. But we do not think mere awareness after the fact should make the candidate responsible for someone else's spending.

Mr. Tyler's interpretation, arrived at undoubtedly with the knowledge and consent of his boss, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, is too broad. How can someone in a campaign not have knowledge of others' spending efforts. What's Mrs. Sauerbrey to do? Hire a scout to yell, "Don't look at that billboard, Ellen!"

Some Republicans claim Mr. Curran, a Democrat running for re-election against a strong Republican challenger, stands to benefit by any hobbles or confusion Republicans suffer by this ruling. They cry "dirty trick"!

We think Mr. Curran and Mr. Tyler are above that sort of thing. It is more akin to bureaucratic, governmental lawyers sharpening a point too fine. But perceptions count in campaigns. Like it or not, this ruling definitely has the look of the legal equivalent of a dirty trick.

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