Saturday, October 26, 2002

Gripes might be bogus, but . . .


By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - As complaints over false campaign ads pile up, determining the complaints' ultimate purpose gets more difficult.

At least 21 complaints have been filed this fall. The Ohio Elections Commission found enough evidence to hold further hearings in 18, but several of those won't be heard until after the Nov. 5 election.

"There are some that are just trying to throw the mud at the window and hope some of it sticks," said Robert Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. "But the overwhelming majority feel there's a legitimate beef there."

For example, candidates in three Ohio Senate races have filed several complaints and counter complaints.

Initially, three Democratic candidates alleged in campaign literature that their Republican opponents cut the state's school construction budget by $345 million.

The Republicans complained, and the elections commission found enough evidence for further hearings. The Republicans then produced ads trumpeting the fact their opponents were under investigation.

The Democrats complained about those ads, and the commission found enough evidence for further hearings on those complaints.

"It's the season," said Philip Richter, the commission's executive director.

The seven-member commission consists of three Democrats, three Republicans and an independent.

When back-and-forth complaints start to hit the office, it's pretty apparent that certain candidates' wishes to have the actual issue settled "could at least be questioned," Mr. Richter said.

But since there's no way of telling what a person's intent is when a complaint is first filed, he must assume everyone wants his case resolved.

Chris McNulty, executive director of the Ohio Republican Party, defended the complaints he filed over the Democrats' school construction ad. He said it was false and misleading.

What happened was this: lawmakers trying to close a $1.9 billion deficit last spring reduced the construction budget by $345 million, but agreed to replace it with money Ohio is receiving as part of the national settlement with tobacco companies.

Mr. McNulty also defended the ads accusing Democrats of being under investigation by the elections commission. He also promised to pursue the complaints no matter the election's outcome.

"It's just that time of year," Mr. McNulty said. "I know the public doesn't understand all of this, unfortunately, but it is a very necessary part of the process and the elections commission has a very important role."

Craig Bieber, political director for the Senate Democrats, said the ads referring to the $345 million cut were accurate and well-researched. He said Democrats couldn't ignore the ads accusing them of being under investigation.

Democrats are filing charges against Republicans for "twisting and distorting" the commission's rulings, Mr. Bieber said.

Republicans, meanwhile, are "attacking us on matters that are an issue of free speech and are open to different interpretations by reasonable people," he said.

Candidates who file complaints against false ads usually take their action seriously, since they're risking the chance of giving the ad credibility, said Mr. Stern, the former top lawyer for the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

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