Should Foreign Contributions To State Candidates Be Illegal?

Yesterday I flagged some contributions from a Canadian citizen (Leo Ledohowski, the owner of the Canad Inns hotel chain) to state Senator Lonnie Laffen who represents the Grand Forks area. This evening the Grand Forks Herald picked up the story, noting that Senator Laffen defends the contributions and even checked with Secretary of State Al Jaeger who says they’re perfectly legal.

“It’s perfectly legal,” Laffen said. “I checked with the North Dakota Secretary of State a long time ago, and there’s nothing wrong with accepting donations from any country.”

Still, a Federal Election Commission guide states that federal law prohibits foreign nationals from making contributions or donations in connection with a federal, state or local election. Ledohowski’s address in the North Dakota Secretary of State campaign contribution database is the Canad Inns headquarters in Winnipeg.

“It is our long-standing understanding that the federal laws under the FEC apply to federal candidates and do not apply to in-state non-federal candidates,” Jaeger wrote in an email. …

Ledohowski’s contribution was first pointed out by Rob Port of SayAnythingBlog.com in a post about Mock’s speech.

Laffen and Jaeger’s statement of the law jibes with my take as well. I see absolutely nothing in state law which prohibits foreign contributions to state campaigns, and Laffen is not a federal candidate. Thus, federal campaign rules do not apply.

That’s why state candidates don’t make filings with the FEC.

The question, then, is should North Dakota outlaw foreign contributions?

My inclination is to say that we shouldn’t. Not because I like the idea of foreign money pouring into state campaigns, but because I think transparency is a better solution.

If we restrict contributions from foreigners they’ll likely find other means through which to support their preferred candidates/issues. Instead, if we stick to full-disclosure transparency laws, it’s much more likely that the public will be aware of foreign support.

I’d rather a candidate accept contributions in the full light of public scrutiny than find ways to work around campaign restrictions.

In Laffen’s defense, everything here was disclosed. Ledohowski’s relatively small contribution was not a secret. It was documented in Laffen’s campaign reports to the state and posted online for anyone to see. The voters in Laffen’s district can decide for themselves whether or not they like this sort of thing.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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