Campaign reform wins

An effort by the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) to erode Connecticut's campaign finance laws has ended, at least for now. By playing within the rules, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy can avoid any renewal of the litigation.

Connecticut is a leader in trying to clean up elections, the result of a bipartisan consensus following the scandal that drove former Gov. John G. Rowland from office and into prison for a year. The intent was to prevent powerful campaign donors from purchasing influence in government.

The legislature created the Citizens' Election Program, awarding public financing to candidates demonstrating broad support through the collection of small donations. In addition, it sought to close any back-door channels a candidate could use to benefit from special interest money.

This brings us to the lawsuit filed by the DGA, for which Gov. Malloy has raised a lot of money. In January, for example, Gov. Malloy hosted a DGA fundraiser in Hartford where the cost of a platinum sponsor was $100,000; gold, $50,000; silver, $25,000; and $10,000, general admission. Ponying up that kind of money were labor, corporate and other special interest groups seeking influence.

It is legal. It is also legal for "527" tax-exempt groups such as the DGA to prop up Democratic governors, including Gov. Malloy, and attack Republicans. Republicans do the same, attacking Democrats. (These 527 groups are prohibited from overtly urging people who to vote for, a regulatory fig leaf.)

What would be illegal - under state law - is the Malloy campaign and the DGA coordinating their efforts, essentially skirting the laws blocking Gov. Malloy, as a publicly financed candidate, from accepting outside donations.

In what amounted to a preemptive strike, the DGA sought a federal court injunction blocking the enforcement of the state finance law that prohibits such coordination, calling it a First Amendment violation under the Citizens United decision. That's ironic, given that Democrats have largely criticized the Citizens United ruling for flooding campaigns with special interest money.

Earlier this month Chief U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall denied the injunction, pointing to a lack of standing. No one has accused the DGA or governor of a violation. If, going forward, Connecticut election officials were to allege improper coordination, the DGA and/or governor could then raise a constitutional defense.

The lawsuit formally ended last week when the DGA withdrew its remaining legal challenge to the state's definition of campaign expenditure.

The good news is that the election law remains in place. The injunction sought would have effectively blocked any investigation into illegal coordination between candidates and outside groups, undermining Connecticut's campaign finance law.

The bad news is that a new challenge may come soon.

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