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September 09. 2012 12:53AM

AG says law does not limit how much individuals can donate to PACS

MANCHESTER — In an opinion that could have a major impact on the current and future political campaigns, the New Hampshire Attorney General's Office says individuals can now make unlimited financial contributions to New Hampshire political action committees that make independent expenditures on behalf of state candidates.

The first PAC to take advantage of the new interpretation of the state's political contributions law is the New Hampshire Republicans for Freedom and Equality PAC.

Two weeks ago, the pro-same sex marriage group received a $100,000 contribution from Paul Singer, a New York-based hedge fund manager who is a major supporter of Mitt Romney, Sen. Kelly Ayotte and GOP candidates nationwide, as well as gay marriage.

The NRFE PAC reported in a Sept. 5 state-required filing it spent more than $94,000 of the Singer contribution on direct mail on behalf of 40 Republican New Hampshire House members who are seeking reelection and one who is now running for the state Senate — Rep. John Reagan, who is in a primary trying to succeed the retiring Sen. Jack Barnes of Raymond.

All those being helped opposed an effort in the Legislature this year to repeal the state's gay marriage law.

Long-standing state law had limited the amount of money an individual could contribute to any political committee to $5,000.

But an Aug. 1 letter from Assistant Attorney General Matthew Mavrogeorge to Secretary of State William Gardner cites the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the landmark Citizens United case and subsequent federal court rulings.

Mavrogeorge counsels that as a result of those rulings, Gardner's office should no longer enforce the $5,000 limit “against political committees that only make independent expenditures.”

Circuit courts that have addressed the issue since the Citizens United case “have, to date, found all such (state) laws to be unconstitutional,” Mavrogeorge wrote.

In an interview, Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice said, “After the Citizens United decision, courts have interpreted that decision as saying that political contributions, if they are to an independent expenditure PAC, one that is not affiliated with a particular campaign, that you (a state law) can't limit the contributions.”

The Attorney General's opinion does not apply to those who contribute to candidate committees.

The chairman of New Hampshire Republicans for Freedom and Equality is Sean Owen, the president and CEO of Wedu, a Manchester- and New York-based strategic marketing firm.

He was active in the successful effort in the Legislature this year to defeat an attempt to repeal the state's same-sex marriage law.

“We had said at the end of the legislative session when the repeal effort failed that we would support a good number of the Republicans that had helped us in the fight,” Owen said Friday.

“The intent now is to make sure that people understand there are Republicans out there who have a different point of view, and we are going to support them and protect them.”

Owen said he has never met Singer.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal story, Singer gave the national GOP $1 million to help underwrite its recent convention in Tampa. The story also notes that he supports gay marriage, a position that is “at odds with the ticket” of Romney and Paul Ryan, who, the story says, Singer once tried to persuade to run for President himself.

And according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets.org, employees at Singer's New York-based hedge fund management firm, Elliott Management Corp., “gave over $95,000” to U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte's 2010 campaign, “and Singer himself gave $3,142.”

Collectively, Elliott Management was “her top donor” in her Senate race, the Center said.

Ayotte opposes gay marriage.

The conservative anti-same sex marriage advocacy group Cornerstone Action issued a statement late Friday contending that the Singer contribution was “illegal” and that it had filed an election law complaint with the Secretary of State's Office.

“Any donation above $5,000 is illegal in New Hampshire under RSA 664:4,” the Cornerstone press release said.

Shannon McGinley, Cornerstone's active executive director, told UnionLeader.com the Attorney General's opinion does not change the law.

“Just because the Attorney General doesn't enforce the law doesn't mean the contribution isn't, in fact, illegal,” she said. “What they did broke the law. Period.”

The incumbent Republican House candidates being supported by the NHFRE PAC are Peter Bolster, Karen Umberger, Adam Hopkins, Susan Emerson, Richard Dwinell, Frank Sterling, Bob Fredette, Russell Day, Cal Pratt, Todd Weeks, Keith Murphy, Kelleigh Domaingue Murphy, Win Hutchinson, Mike Ball, Steve Vaillancourt, Don LeBrun, Michael Reed, Bob Haefner, Shawn Jasper, Charlene Katesian and Jon Maltz.

Also, Russ Ober, Matt Swank, Ken Dreis, Priscilla Lockwood, David Hess, Kathy Hoelzel, Gene Charron, Karen Keegan-Hutchinson, Sherm Packard, John Sytek, Ronald Belanger, David Welch, Tim Copeland, Pat Abrami, Robert Boyle, Marie Sapienza, Robert Kropel, Mike Castaldo and Julie Brown.

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John DiStaso may be reached at jdistaso@unionleader.com.


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