Katie King ran a well-financed campaign for district judge that covered every corner of the city last fall. Despite being a relatively unknown 28-year-old assistant county attorney, the daughter of current mayoral candidate and Metro Councilman Jim King, D-10, buried her opponent under an avalanche of campaign literature, endorsements and a series of well-produced television ads.
The high-priced campaign sparked a storm of criticism, with some observers claiming her win is further proof that judicial elections are nothing more than a monetary exercise whereby the candidate with the deepest pockets buys a victory. In King’s case, she raised well over $250,000 and out-spent her opponent by a 4-to-1 margin going into last November’s election.
But the controversy pretty much subsided once Katie King settled in behind the bench.
Then came a recent revelation about the financing of Judge King’s campaign: It turns out Jim King made some of the heftiest contributions to her campaign in the form of “personal gifts” that far exceeded the $1,000 limit permitted under state election law.
In a preliminary report issued last month, the staff of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance said Councilman King violated campaign finance laws by giving his daughter more than $145,000 during her campaign. KREF is expected to make a final ruling on the matter later this week.
But even if the board upholds the findings from the preliminary report, it’s unclear if there will be any penalties aside from a possible fine. It’s an uncertainty that raises questions about whether Kentucky’s campaign finance laws are strong enough to deter wrongdoing, or if it’s worth it for wealthy candidates to risk a slap on the wrist to win an election.
When asked about the contributions to his daughter’s campaign, Councilman King said before he handed over any money, he corresponded with a KREF employee who told him the agency does not regulate the private finances of a candidate. The preliminary report, however, admonishes King for misreading the context of those e-mail exchanges. It goes on to say that it was “incorrect and unwise” for him to misconstrue those general statements as if they were the registry’s legal opinion, which they were not.
In the report, the registry’s general counsel accuses King of seeking a way to infuse money into his daughter’s campaign knowing that he could not directly contribute funds. But because Jim King claims he relied on potentially unclear correspondence with a KREF employee, the report ultimately comes to the somewhat contradictory conclusion that “violations do not appear to have been committed knowingly.”
“It doesn’t seem logical to me that anyone can limit gifts between a father and a daughter,” King said, adding he conferred with an attorney and took the employee’s statement as the agency’s legal advice. He maintains that the preliminary findings exonerate him of any wrongdoing and said he hopes the board will adopt the staff’s recommendation without penalty.
“I’m certainly not interested in paying any fines,” he said, “because I think we followed their advice.”
Established to assure the integrity of the commonwealth’s electoral process, the registry’s campaign finance rules have a two-tier penalty system. The first track can carry substantial civil punishments that can impact average candidates and contributors for unintentional violations. In those cases the staff usually recommends conciliation to its board, which can levee fines of up to $5,000 per violation. The registry’s general counsel alleges King committed three separate civil violations, which means the agency could issue fines totaling $15,000.
In addition to fining a campaign or donor, the registry can require those found guilty of violations to supply the registry with more detailed reports and to abide by stricter fund-raising guidelines in the future. Beyond that, the agency has limited options when it comes to penalizing unintentional abuses.
There’s a broad spectrum of people who run for office in Kentucky. For more affluent contributors and candidates — like, say, the Kings — it is questionable whether these civil penalties issued by the registry are truly a deterrent.
But according to attorney Spencer Noe, counsel for the Kentucky Republican Party, even candidates with money to spend can be deterred by the stigma attached to such violations.
“You don’t want a reputation — I don’t care who you are — of violating campaign finance laws,” he said. “I think that has a major deterring effect on a candidate that prevents people from knowingly violating those laws.”
If a violation is intentionally committed the registry can refer the matter to the attorney general’s office for further investigation and prosecution.
Although it’s still unclear at this point whether the Kings will face any criminal investigation, observers say it’s unlikely.
Shelley Johnson, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said they prosecuted a campaign violation case earlier this year in Kenton County. In April, Covington City Commissioner Steven Megerle pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate campaign finance restrictions in a case that involved handing out campaign fliers aimed at damaging openly gay candidates.
As a result Megerle was given a 12-month jail sentence, which was suspended for a year. The court later ruled that he could not raise, collect or handle money associated with any political campaign during a one-year suspension.
“I don’t think many people want to be talked about as a campaign violator,” Noe said. “We know a $1,000 fine isn’t going to effect a multimillionaire very much financially, but if a candidate or contributor gets that reputation, it is a detrimental effect to him and nobody wants that.”