Mesa officials won’t penalize mayoral candidate Rex Griswold even though he exceeded the amount of money he’s allowed to raise under the state’s campaign finance laws.
Last week, Griswold advised the city clerk’s office that he raised $2,040 more in personal loans and family contributions than what’s allowed by state law.
The April violations could have opened up the race to allow his two competitors, businessman Scott Smith and Vice Mayor Claudia Walters, to raise tens of thousands of additional dollars for their campaigns from individual contributors and political action committees, as outlined by the state’s campaign finance laws.
However, City Attorney Debbie Spinner sent a letter to Griswold and the media Tuesday saying that while contributions were a violation, her interpretation of state law doesn’t prescribe a penalty for the error or allow more fundraising for Walters and Smith.
“When he loaned himself the money he did violate the (statute),” Spinner said. “This section doesn’t prescribe any penalty for that.”
Griswold has raised $77,000 and was leading Walters and Smith after the last round of campaign finance reports, covering contributions through November.
Griswold says he’s corrected the financial error by paying himself back $2,500 of a $5,000 campaign loan, which would push his personal contributions under the $15,670 limit for local races.
Griswold, who recently resigned from the City Council to enter the mayoral race, said that he didn’t know his loans were considered personal contributions and also didn’t realize some of his relatives were considered in that category.
“I made a mistake here,” he said. “It wasn’t knowingly. As soon as I did it, I let them know.”
However, Griswold’s notice came about eight months after the loan was made. Walters informed Griswold last week of the violation after she recently looked through his campaign reports, she said.
Spinner’s review of the matter states the violation occurred when Griswold’s campaign was in the exploratory phase this spring. Because of that, he won’t suffer penalties, and the landscape of the election won’t change.
The state’s campaign finance law puts a cap on the amount of personal donations raised in the exploratory committee phase, but doesn’t outline any penalties, Spinner said.
And when Griswold transferred that money to his campaign committee, the only statute governing such activity is for statewide offices, not local elections, Spinner argued.
Therefore, provisions that could have opened up a path for Walters and Smith to raise thousands of dollars in excess of campaign contribution caps could not be invoked, she said.
“There’s no case law interpreting this,” Spinner said. “I read it the way I thought the statute was written.”
In one scenario, Walters and Smith would have been able to raise up to $590 per day since the time Griswold was in violation of the limits, in April. That would have eliminated the $390 cap on individual donations and the $10,020 cap on political committee donations for both Walters and Smith.
Kristi Passarelli, a campaign finance manager with the Maricopa County election office, said she couldn’t think of an instance where a similar mistake had occurred with campaigns for the county offices she regulates.
However, she said the rules restricting donations could have applied once Griswold moved the money from his exploratory committee to his election committee.
“Once they roll everything into the candidate committee — you become bound by the limits,” she said.
Spinner said such an interpretation could be a “legal argument” against her interpretation of the law.
However, a lawsuit is unlikely. Walters said Tuesday that Griswold would not have “intentionally violated the rules.”
Smith said that he would remain focused on his own campaign.
“Our concern is on our message and trying to get our message out,” he said. “Whether it’s fair or unfair is in the eye of the beholder.”