Lawsuit alleges 'illegal' campaign contributions in Cincinnati elections

Posted at 5:06 PM, Sep 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-05 17:17:17-04

CINCINNATI -- A group of local politicos have filed a lawsuit against the Cincinnati Elections Commission and Mayor John Cranley's re-election campaign, alleging an incorrect reading of a charter amendment has allowed wealthy people to make "illegal" campaign contributions to city political candidates.

Attorneys representing Councilmember Wendell Young, council candidate Kelli Prather, William Woods and former elections commission chair Clint Watson filed the complaint in Hamilton County court Monday.

The lawsuit is centered around a 2001 charter amendment which limits the amount a person can donate to any one city council or mayor candidate to $1,000 (this was later changed to $1,100).

However, in 2005, the manager for Cranley's council re-election campaign sought an advisory opinion from the elections commission on whether donations from Limited Liability Companies would count toward the $1,100 limit, according to the new lawsuit. The elections commission decided that LLC donations would not count, allowing each LLC to make a $1,100 campaign contribution in addition to a contribution made by its owner.

That opinion was never published and was only distributed to members of the public by specific request, according to the lawsuit.

"The Advisory Opinion allows individuals with the financial means to organize one or more LLCs an unlimited ability to exceed the (now) $1,100 per person contribution limit. But ordinary citizens, including three of the Plaintiffs, who do not own LLCs are limited to a $1,100 donation to any candidate for Council or Mayor," the lawsuit states.

Some donors to Cranley's campaign used more than 10 LLC accounts to make contributions, according to the lawsuit.

Before filing the lawsuit, Young, Prather and Donald Mooney Jr., one of their attorneys, had filed a complaint with the elections commission in June. A hearing was held in July, during which four members of the elections commission board voted to dismiss the complaint, according to the lawsuit. All four members were appointed by Cranley.

The lawsuit also alleged "conflict of interest and illegal contribution" by a member of the election commission who donated to Cranley's campaign and another who hosted a "meet and greet" at his home for Cranley in June.

Brooke Hill, the press secretary for the Cranley campaign, said Cranley "followed the law in both letter and spirit."

"This is just another attempt at political gamesmanship by supporters of Yvette Simpson, which is why the Ohio Elections Commission already dismissed these ridiculous complaints," Hill said.

Simpson's campaign did not immediately provide a comment.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to overrule the elections commission's decision, declare that campaign contributions from LLCs are not separate from those of their owners and to order any city politicians' campaigns that have received such donations to return them. 

Read the full lawsuit below:

Young v Cincinnati Elections Commission by WCPO Web Team on Scribd