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Eye on Boise: Campaign finance dispute crops up in Idaho Supreme Court race

Robyn Brody’s campaign for the Idaho Supreme Court disputes a finding by the Idaho secretary of state that four donations, totaling $27,000, received from four farm-related businesses exceeded the state’s Sunshine Law limits because the businesses are related by a single owner.

“We think they’re misinterpreting the statute,” said James Ruchti, a Pocatello attorney and spokesman for Brody’s campaign fundraising committee. “There are multiple owners, varied owners. We got checks that were signed by different people.”

However, he said the campaign will set aside $17,000 for now, while it works on an appeal to the state; it’ll abide by whatever final decision the secretary of state and Idaho attorney general’s office reach, Ruchti said. He blamed rival Clive Strong, who also is running for the Supreme Court post, charging, “Clive Strong called the secretary of state’s office when he saw Robyn’s filing, probably upset because she outraised him 3-to-1, and he told them, hey, there’s these donations and I want you to check it out.”

Actually, the secretary of state’s office was contacted by Bruce Newcomb, former Idaho speaker of the House, not by Strong. Newcomb is Strong’s campaign chairman.

Ruchti said, “I think this is really all about Clive Strong’s campaign thinking that Robyn Brody was not somebody he had to worry about in this campaign because she was from a small town in Idaho, and what he’s finding out is that the bar has tremendous respect for her, her friends and family and former clients have tremendous respect for her and her abilities, and that’s what the $175,000 that we’ve raised so far reflects.”

Newcomb said, “I would just say, as somebody who supports Clive Strong, I want to make sure things are on the up-and-up, and I expect that from Clive and I expect it from anybody else. And when I saw all those entities from Shillington, I thought that was an anomaly.” Robert Shillington is a common owner, at least in part, of all four businesses.

Newcomb added, “I know the Shillingtons. … So I see all those corporations that I’m familiar with over the years, and I say, there’s an anomaly there – is that the same thing that’s been going on with Doyle Beck?”

The secretary of state’s office has been investigating numerous contributions from companies owned by Beck, an Idaho Falls businessman, to at least three legislative campaigns, to see if they violated Sunshine Law limits. The limits are $1,000 per primary or general election for a legislative candidate, and $5,000 per primary or general election for a statewide candidate, including an Idaho Supreme Court candidate.

“Why be defensive of the fact that somebody pointed it out?” Newcomb asked. “It’s not like this is my first rodeo. I’ve looked at Sunshine reports for a long time, and I look for the anomalies, and this one just jumped out at me.”

There are four candidates facing off for an opening on the Idaho Supreme Court: Brody, Strong, Idaho Court of Appeals Judge Sergio Gutierrez and state Sen. Curt McKenzie.

Under the Idaho Code of Judicial Conduct, judicial candidates are not supposed to know who contributed to their campaigns – even though it’s public record. That is instead handled by a campaign committee.

Farm Bureau role …

The Idaho Farm Bureau Federation’s endorsement of Curt McKenzie for the Idaho Supreme Court opening has raised some eyebrows, as the Farm Bureau is a nonprofit, which typically means an organization can’t support or oppose any candidate for public office.

But Farm Bureau spokesman John Thompson explained that the organization is a 501(c)5 nonprofit, not a 501(c)3; it’s in a category for labor or agricultural organizations. That means it can engage in some political activity, as long as that’s not its primary activity. It also means if it donated money to a candidate for office, it’d have to pay a stiff 34 percent tax on the donation amount. “We decided not to, because the tax is so high,” said Thompson, public relations director for the Farm Bureau.

Thompson said the Farm Bureau typically doesn’t endorse candidates. But its board voted to endorse McKenzie, because “we have some concerns about who we think is the front-runner, Clive Strong.” Thompson said the bureau has differed with Strong on various agriculture-related legal issues over the years. A top one: When two ranchers from Owyhee County pressed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management over stock water rights and won, they ended up with $1.5 million in legal fees they couldn’t pay. “We tried to help them; I think we raised about $70,000,” Thompson said. “We tried to appeal to the state of Idaho to use the Constitutional Defense Fund money to help with that, and they said no. Clive Strong argued against us on that one.”

Idaho’s Constitutional Defense Fund has only been used for state litigation, not to pay attorney fees for private parties’ litigation. Expenditures from the fund are approved by a four-member council that includes the governor, the attorney general, the House speaker and the president pro tem of the Senate.

Strong said, “I don’t have anything to do with the Constitutional Defense Fund – I’m not on it, I don’t advise it. … I guess I can get blamed for a lot of things.”

Thompson said the Farm Bureau also parted ways with Strong over the 2004 Nez Perce Tribe water rights settlement, which was lauded by the state, the tribe, and the U.S. Department of the Interior for settling the tribe’s instream flow claims to water in the Snake River. The settlement followed a court-ordered mediation and several years of negotiations.

Thompson said, “We think McKenzie’s the best guy for the job.” Asked how the bureau concluded Strong is the front-runner, he said, “I guess you’d call it insider discussions, checking the tea leaves. We don’t really know that for a fact.”

McKenzie said, “I am happy for support, regardless of what path it takes to get to me.”

Both Strong and McKenzie said they have no idea who the front-runner is in the four-way race. “No one’s done any polling or anything else,” Strong said.

Three, not four?

Brody sent out a campaign flier last week that noted her scores in a recent Idaho State Bar survey about candidates’ qualifications, and was critical of both McKenzie and Strong. But her flier didn’t mention the fourth candidate in the race: Gutierrez, who has served on the state’s second-highest court since 2002 and has been a judge since 1993. In the state bar survey, Gutierrez and Brody actually tied for the highest scores, at identical averages of 3.58 out of 4.

“For me, the real issue was distinguishing myself among the two other lawyers that are running, rather than a sitting judge,” Brody said. The election is May 17.