Billboards and fliers pushed by an anonymous group that attack Columbus mayoral candidate Selvain McQueen could violate Mississippi campaign finance laws.
Even if they aren’t illegal, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann told The Dispatch such anonymous negative advertising is still the work of “cowards.”
Ads that have recently popped up on two of Lamar Advertising’s digital billboards on Highway 45 show photos of McQueen — a Democratic candidate for mayor who once served as Columbus police chief — alongside messages like “Is he truthful?” and “Did he take your money?” All of the spots targeting the candidate are labeled “Paid for by themcqueenfacts.com,” a WordPress blog an anonymous source started earlier this month asking 16 pointed questions of McQueen, including whether he mishandled investigations while he was a police officer and if he was involved with stealing money from Golden Triangle Crime Stoppers.
Fliers referencing the site and some of the questions have also appeared on sales counters at local businesses. Some Columbus residents have received the fliers in the mail.
Neither the ads nor website openly affiliate with any of the other three candidates running for mayor — including Democratic incumbent Robert Smith. Themcqueenfacts.com has not registered as a nonprofit or political action committee with the Secretary of State’s office and it has not filed a campaign finance report, which is required for individuals or groups who raise or spend more than $200 for campaign advertising.
“Any group that doesn’t identify who they are are cowards in my opinion,” Hosemann said Wednesday while visiting the Mississippi University for Women for a press conference meant to promote the vote for next week’s municipal primaries. “Because they want to influence an election, but they want to hide the ball from people they want to influence. If you’re not a coward, then you should stand up and say, ‘I said that.'”
Hosemann said it is the state attorney general’s job to determine whether the ads and fliers are illegal, but he pointed to a pair of Mississippi statutes that regulate campaign finance. One code, Mississippi 23-15-897, says any advertisement meant to influence voters for or against a candidate must be approved by a candidate or the candidate’s campaign management and cannot simply bear such designations as “paid political advertisement,” “contributed by a friend,” “contributed by the friends and supporters.”
Another code, 23-15-899, says printed campaign advertisements must also bear the name and address of the author, printer and publisher or be subject to misdemeanor charges.
“You have to know who put this up,” Hosemann said.
Hosemann would not comment directly Wednesday on whether he considered the billboards, photo copies of which The Dispatch provided him, campaign advertising, instead deferring to AG’s office. He did, however, turn the question around to media gathered at the press conference.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Attorney General Jim Hood would not comment on the legality of the advertisements in Columbus but pointed to the same statutes as Hosemann.
“We do not comment on whether any particular activity of factual situation constitutes a violation of law,” Hood said in an emailed statement to The Dispatch. “We point out that the law requires that any advertisement referencing an election must either be submitted to and approved by a candidate or his campaign manager or assistant campaign manager … or must bear on its face the name of the author and of the printer and publisher of the advertisement.”
He did confirm any group or individual that raises or spends more than $200 for political advertising must register as a political committee with the secretary of state’s office. Failing to do so, he said, is a misdemeanor and could result in jail time and a fine of up to $3,000.
Hood would not comment on whether his office plans to investigate the advertisements in Columbus. The Dispatch is today filing a formal request for an AG’s opinion on the issue.
Past court cases
Federal courts have ruled in previous cases that groups sending out more than $200 worth of campaign material must identify themselves and register with the Secretary of State’s Office, specifically Justice v. Hosemann in 2014, which originated from a group in Lafayette County campaigning for and against constitutional initiatives.
“The plaintiffs) raised $200 or more than $200 and they refused to file with our office as required and they put out pamphlets,” Hosemann said. “… We took them to court and the federal district court held that citizens in the state of Mississippi had an interest in determining who was paying for things and upheld our requirement that they file, even though it was a minuscule amount. When it’s more than $200, they have to file.
“Looking at this, I can tell it’s more than $200,” he added, referencing the McQueen billboards.
Indeed, it is. A Lamar representative previously told The Dispatch the anonymous advertiser spent $1,000 to run the ads for two weeks. That does not count printing costs for the fliers.
Hosemann also referenced a more recent case, Anonymous v. Hosemann in Madison County in 2015, which ruled political advertisements had to include the identities of the people who paid for them. In that case, an anonymous source was mailing out negative political ads against a mayoral candidate.
Mayor denies involvement
Sources presumably responsible for the blog contacted The Dispatch through email and Facebook last week, but did not reply to The Dispatch’s requests for comment. The Dispatch has been unable to verify the organizers’ identities.
On the blog, the organizers claim to be college students who turned a class project into community activism.
At a forum in Columbus last week, McQueen accused Mayor Smith of being behind the blog.
Smith has denied any involvement with the blog or advertisements. He told The Dispatch he didn’t know who set up the blog, although he asserts everything it says is factual.
He later indicated to The Dispatch he plans to take the “high road” in the campaign and not resort to negative advertisement.
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