Republican state Rep. John Ragan says he has removed his state office phone number and state email address from his campaign website as a “courtesy” to a constituent who complained — opponent and Democrat Jim Hackworth.
Hackworth this week sent reporters an email declaring Ragan, who represents District 33 in Anderson County, had run afoul of state laws with his campaign website, http://johndragan.com, on two fronts. He added a third example in an interview.
First, Hackworth said that by giving his state office telephone number and state government email address as a means of communicating on campaign matters, Ragan appeared in violation of the state’s “Little Hatch Act,” which generally prohibits use of taxpayer-paid equipment for political purposes. Hackworth said a caller to Ragan’s state office asking for campaign information was referred to a separate number, providing another indication that state facilities were being used for politics.
Ragan questioned why Hackworth communicated his concerns through the media rather than to him directly. Nonetheless, he said he had “intermediaries” check into the validity of Hackworth’s charge and got a “preliminary” response back that there was nothing improper about using the number and the email address.
Drew Rawlins, director of the state Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said his office does not have jurisdiction over enforcement of Hatch Act violations, which are legally classified as misdemeanor criminal offenses that must be prosecuted by a district attorney general. As a general proposition, however, Rawlins said the situation posed by Ragan’s website appeared to be a “gray area” with no clear answer.
Josh Thomas, a consultant to the House Republican Caucus who spoke with Rawlins on the matter, said he believes there is no violation. While the law forbids use of state facilities for political purposes, Thomas said the reverse is not true – the political website can appropriately give information about Regan’s legislative office and how to contact him as a lawmaker.
Still, Ragan had the information removed from the website Tuesday.
“I took that off as a courtesy,” said Ragan. “I want to appear responsive to my constituents.”
Ragan, who defeated Hackworth for the House seat in the 2010 election, said he might return the phone number and email addresses to the website at a later date if he gets a “definitive ruling” on the propriety.
As a second objection, Hackworth said the website fails to give a “disclaimer” stating that a campaign committee paid for the website and the name of the treasurer. Rawlins said, again, this is not an area of law enforced by his agency and there’s confusion about how to interpret the law.
Ragan said the law does not apply to the website because it is not financed by his campaign committee. Instead, he has paid the cost of running it — $240 per year for the past two years — “out of my own pocket” and not through campaign funds.
The website does have a line saying “copyright 2012, Committee to Elect John Ragan.” But Ragan said that was added by a friend who, on a volunteer basis, put up the website and maintains it without him paying attention.
Hackworth said in an interview if Ragan has paid for the website then that should be reported on his campaign disclosure as a personal expenditure on behalf of the campaign or as an in-kind contribution. In an interview, Ragan said he could not recall reporting the annual expenditure on his campaign disclosure. A review of Ragan’s financial disclosures for the past three years on the Registry of Election Finance website shows no disclosure of such an expenditure.
Rawlins said that campaign finance rules would have required reporting such an expense, as Hackworth contends, and failure to do so could lead to a review by the Registry and a possible civil penalty. If the services provided by the volunteer in setting up and maintaining the website had a monetary value, then those services should also have been reported as an “in-kind” donation to the campaign, he said.
No such report appears on Regan’s reports to the Registry.