When I heard that Jimmy Fahrenholtz had qualified for the Second District congressional race, I called him on his cell phone to see what was up. He was ebullient. I cant believe it took you this long to catch me, he said, laughing. I think my chances are really, really good in this thing.
Then, almost as an afterthought, he said, I guess now Ill have to pay those damn fines at the Ethics Board. He chuckled again. He has had a running battle with the Ethics Commission over some fines now more than $31,000 imposed against him for alleged late filings.
Hes not laughing any more.
At the time of the phone call, I was minutes away from going on WWL-TVs 5 p.m. newscast (this was Friday, July 11 right before qualifying closed), so I didnt have a chance to follow up right away about the Ethics Board matter. Sure wish I had followed up sooner than now. As almost everyone knows, Fahrenholtz was disqualified by Judge Nadine Ramsey of Civil District Court in New Orleans this morning. Ramsey concluded that Fahrenholtz lied on his qualifying papers and therefore is ineligible to run. He is expected to appeal the decision and may have filed his appeal already. These cases tend to move very, very quickly up the appellate ladder.
Judge Ramsey bounced Fahrenholtz after Houma attorney Conrad Duke Williams, a supporter of Democratic candidate and former TV newscaster Helena Moreno, filed a lawsuit seeking to have Fahrenholtz disqualified for allegedly lying on his qualifying papers. Under Louisianas Election Code, a candidate qualifying for office must certify that he or she does not owe any fines or fees under the state Campaign Finance Disclosure Act. The Act further bars candidates for state or local office from qualifying. Fahrenholtz apparently signed his qualifying papers attesting to the fact that he does not owe the fines. If he had paid them before qualifying, this would not be an issue.
After a brief hearing on the matter this morning (Tuesday, July 22), during which Fahrenholtz admitted that he owed at least $15,000 in Ethics Board fines under the Act, Ramsey took the matter under advisement. The hearing concluded at 9:35 a.m. She issued her ruling less than two-and-a-half hours later, at 11:59 a.m.
Fahrenholtz makes a legal argument, not a factual one, in his defense and he may yet prevail. His argument is essentially that a state law, specifically the state Campaign Finance Disclosure Act, cannot and does not apply to a federal election, and that only federal law can do that. In fact, the state Campaign Finance Disclosure Act (La. R.S. 18:1481 et seq., for all you lawyers and law students out there), expressly states that it does not apply to persons running for U.S. Senate, Congress or members of committees of political parties. However, a separate section of the Louisiana Election Code (La. R.S. 18:463(A)(2)(a) provides:
The notice of candidacy also shall include a certificate, signed by the candidate, certifying that he meets the qualifications of the office for which he is qualifying that he acknowledges that he is subject to the provisions of the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act if he is a candidate for any office other than United States senator, representative in congress, or member of a committee of a political party, that he does not owe any outstanding fines, fees, or penalties pursuant to the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act, and that all of the statements contained in it (the certificate) are true and correct. [Emphasis added.]
Ramsey agreed with Fahrenholtz that the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act does not apply to persons running for Congress, but she ruled that another section of the states Election Code the section cited above does impose on him the additional requirement of not lying on his qualifying papers. When he admitted in the trial that he owes $15,000 in fines to the Ethics, Ramsey bounced him.
It kinda reminds me of former Secretary of State Jim Browns case. He was acquitted of participating in any conspiracy but he was convicted of lying to the FBI about the alleged conspiracy.
In splitting the application of the two state laws, Ramsey noted that Election Code requires that a candidate make two distinct certifications: (1) that he is subject to the provisions of the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act if he is a candidate for any office other than the specified exempt offices, and (2) that he does not owe any outstanding fines or fees pursuant to the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act. In effect, Ramsey held that while the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act on its own doesnt bar Fahrenholtz from running, another provision of the Election Code does and it requires that he not lie.
The larger question the one on which Fahrenholtzs candidacy really hangs is whether ANY state law can bar a candidate from seeking federal office.
If Fahrenholtz loses his appeal, he may yet seek relief from the federal courts. This thing is far from over unless Fahrenholtz just gives up.
One interesting footnote: Fahrenholtz absolutely could not have run for re-election to the position he currently holds on the Orleans Parish School Board (a local office) under the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act. His finance reports for that office from past campaigns were the source of all the fines. Its interesting that now, in the face of all those fines that bar him from seeking re-election to the school board, he seeks a higher office.
One Thing to Remember Going Forward: In order to disqualify a candidate from a state or local election, the Ethics Commission must have obtained a legal judgment affirming its fines, fees or penalties against the offending candidate. Its not enough that the commission has merely ruled against a candidate; the courts must affirm the ruling and impose a money judgment.
Thing Number Two to Remember: If youre going to run for any office, its a good idea to pay your fines BEFORE you qualify. This makes Thing Number One a lot less relevant and it could save a lot of time, money and embarrassment.