PHOENIX -- Gubernatorial hopeful Ken Bennett is blaming Secretary of State Michele Reagan for coming up short of the $5 donations he needs to qualify for public funding.
And now he’s looking for a lawyer.
Bennett spokeswoman Christine Bauserman said the web site run by Reagan’s office for online contributions for Clean Elections funding went dark at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Only thing is, Bennett had until midnight that night to reach the 4,000 he needed to free up $839,704 for his bid to become the Republican nominee.
Officials in Reagan’s office are not disputing what happened. And they say that the site was restored -- apparently several hours later -- after being informed of the problem.
But spokesman Matt Roberts said the problem originates with how the site was first programmed years ago, when people were first allowed to make their $5 donations online. He said it was designed to stop taking donations at 5 p.m. on deadline day.
And the person in charge of the office at that time? Ken Bennett, who left office at the end of 2014.
That explanation drew an angry response from Bauserman.
“So you’re telling me that over four years with all the advancements in technology and payment methods, that the system has not been re-looked at or redesigned?’’ she asked, saying that if that’s the case it amounts to “gross incompetence.’’
“There wasn’t a reason to change anything,’’ Roberts responded. And he said that’s backed up by the fact that Bennett, who become secretary of state in 2009, did not do updates of that system ahead of the 2012 or 2014 elections.
Bauserman said Bennett, who hopes to beat incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey in the Republican primary, is weighing whether to seek a court order whether to force the web portal to be reopened again for some period of time, or give him some other method to qualify for that public funding.
Tom Collins, executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said any fight that Bennett has is with Reagan’s office which operates the web site. But he suggested that, at least on a surface level, Bennett has a legitimate complaint about the site going down early.
“I don’t know of any statutory authority to shut it down at 5,’’ he said.
Less clear, Collins said, is whether Bennett can get any legal relief, whether from a court or even the commission.
“He would have to show, it seems to me, that he has some reasonable likelihood of collecting some actual qualifying contributions,’’ he said. “And he’d have to show that number is the number he’s short by.’’
Bauserman declined to say Wednesday how many $5 contributions Bennett has on hand, whether through the web site or people giving in person or by mail.
Collins said it was his understanding that on Aug. 6, the last time he got an update from the Bennett campaign, there were about 3,100 donations. But campaign finance reports filed this week, which cover the period ending Aug. 11, showed just 2,849 qualifying contributions.
He said even if Bennett could prove he could get 4,000 donations, that’s not likely to be good enough.
Collins said a random sample of those are sent to county recorders to verify that the names and signatures match those of registered voters. And Collins said there always are some that are thrown out, meaning Bennett realistically needs at least 4,200 to qualify.
For the moment, though, the threat of litigation remains academic. Bauserman said late Wednesday the campaign was having trouble finding an attorney with sufficient experience in election law who did not have a conflict of interest in working for other candidates.
Even if he gets his day in court, and even if a judge orders he be given more time to get donations, that still leaves a significant issue: How quickly could Bennett get a check from Clean Elections -- and could he even make use of it given the election is Tuesday?
“The question would be, can he spend the money in a manner that’s consistent with the law in a timely manner?’’ Collins said. He said there are very specific rules on how public funding can be used.
“And you know he’s going to get audited,’’ Collins said.
Bauserman acknowledged it would be a problem if Bennett didn’t get the cash until Monday or Tuesday. But she said the campaign still could make use of the dollars in a meaningful and legal fashion with last-minute radio commercials and “robocalls’’ to Republicans urging them to get out and voter for Bennett.
“We’re going for it with the grassroots Second Amendment issue that’s on fire,’’ she said, a reference to Bennett criticizing Ducey for his school safety plan to allow judges to take weapons away from people, at least temporarily, who are considered dangerous. Bennett has gone the opposite direction, saying more people in schools should be armed.
And Bauserman said getting qualified for public financing is important, even if it occurs after the primary -- and even if the $839,704 comes too late to be spent -- if Bennett actually wins the primary. That would then qualify him for a new allocation of $1,259,556 for a general election campaign against whichever Democrat survives that party’s primary.
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