Abortion bill author got unregistered PAC contribution, highlighting gaps in reporting

The author of an Indiana anti-abortion law struck down by a federal judge hours before it could take effect July 1 received a primary-eve campaign contribution whose source remains confused. It’s also unclear whether regulators will investigate.

Cox Cox

Rep. Casey Cox, R-Fort Wayne, reported in a campaign finance disclosure that he received an in-kind contribution of $1,828.51 on April 28 from the Indiana Right to Life PAC, but no such political action committee was registered then, and at IL deadline, no such committee had submitted a statement of organization as the law requires. A PAC by that name dissolved in 1998, according to the Indiana Secretary of State’s Election Division, but its chairman continues to use the name.

Cox, who served as treasurer of his campaign’s Our Community for Casey Cox committee, said he may have erred and may need to file an amended campaign finance disclosure. He said the contribution may have come from a group registered as Indiana Right for Life PAC. That committee is registered as a PAC with a north side Indianapolis office address also used by Indiana Right to Life Inc.

“My recollection is that contribution was in relation to letters that went out to pro-life voters in the district” prior to the May 3 primary election, Cox said of the contribution. He said the mailer “would have talked about my pro-life work in the Statehouse.”

An attorney with Beers Mallers Backs & Salin LLP in Fort Wayne, Cox lost his bid for re-election in Indiana House District 85 to GOP challenger Dave Heine, an Allen County farmer and businessman.

Nevertheless, Indiana Right for Life PAC — the PAC Cox said appears to be the donor — has been mostly dormant for years, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Election Division. That PAC reported a static balance of $193 in its coffers for 2016 through April 8. Since 2014, it reported collecting $115 in donations, spending just $45.

Indiana Right for Life PAC lists its treasurer as Chris Schwenk, who referred comments to Mike Fichter, president and CEO of Indiana Right to Life Inc. Fichter said he also chairs the Indiana Right to Life PAC, but he said he wasn’t aware that no PAC by that name was registered. He provided the business number for Indiana Right to Life PAC Inc. While it’s registered with the Secretary of State as a business entity, it’s not registered as a political action committee.

“Indiana Right to Life PAC did support Casey with a few expenditures that were made,” Ficther said, noting the deadline for PACs to report such expenditures is in October, if it was made by the Indiana Right for Life PAC. “There’s apparently some confusion between the Indiana Secretary of State’s office and Indiana Right to Life” over the PAC’s name. “We’ll be in touch with them and find out where the error occurred and how to correct it.”

Asked whether the past sums reported raised and spent on behalf of his organization through the Right for Life PAC seemed accurate and complete, Fichter said, “I don’t know. I can’t comment on that. … Any of our expenditures and income would be listed on any of our past reports.”

Fichter said most of the organization’s past expenses have been for get-out-the-vote efforts that didn’t endorse a particular candidate. Cox confirmed the contribution he reported was for an advertisement that explicitly endorsed his candidacy.

Under Indiana law, a political action committee that contributes to candidates is required to file a statement of organization within 10 days of formation. The statement must include the names and addresses of the chairperson and treasurer. The requirements are found in I.C. 3-9-1-4 and 3-9-1-5.

Under I.C. 3-9-4-16, failure to file a statement of organization may be subject to maximum civil penalties of $100 to $1,000, depending on whether the violation is corrected. Violators also bear the cost of any investigation undertaken by the election division of the Secretary of State’s office.

It was not clear whether the report of a contribution from an unregistered PAC would trigger an investigation. Valerie Warycha, deputy chief of staff and communications director for Secretary of State Connie Lawson, confirmed that staff members who looked for a statement of organization for the Indiana Right to Life PAC found only records of the PAC by that name that had disbanded in 1998.

Warycha said a report of a donation from an unregistered PAC would be forwarded to the election division of the Secretary of State’s office, though it’s unclear whether the matter would be investigated or a complaint filed with the Indiana Election Commission.

“They are the ones who want a formal complaint,” she said of the election commission, the three-member bipartisan panel that enforces election law. “They want someone to come to the meeting and testify. … This is the law and we’re following the law the General Assembly has set up,” Warycha said.

There appear to be few internal controls on political action committee registrations and contributions within the Secretary of State’s office. A donation may be reported from a PAC that isn’t registered, as happened in Cox’s case, without raising flags in the election division. Likewise, the system would not appear to identify PACs that donate to candidates without first registering.

Indiana Code 3-9-4-13 says the election division “shall make audits and field investigations from time to time with respect to reports and statements filed under this article and with respect to an alleged failure to file a report or statement required under this article.”

Cox also claimed an in-kind donation of $1,650 for advertising on April 26 from another PAC that was registered — the Allen County Right to Life PAC. That PAC’s most recent disclosure, its 2016 Pre-Primary Report dated April 19, showed a balance of $357.32 at the end of the reporting period that closed April 8, and no contributions through that point this year.•

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