Saturday, October 08, 2005

Registrars may walk fine party lines

As the elections near, Willie Mae Kilgore, Scott County registrar and mother of gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore, is at the center of a debate about campaign contributions.

It's the vote every candidate can count on: the one from Mom. Almost as certain, perhaps, is a financial contribution from a politician's mother.

But what if the mother who contributes thousands of dollars to the campaigns of her two sons, plus some money to the party they represent, is also a local election official responsible for registering voters, handling absentee ballots and overseeing the operations of elections?

Is that a conflict of interest? Or just being a proud mother?

Both arguments are being made in the case of Willie Mae Kilgore, the Scott County voter registrar and the mother of twin Republicans. Jerry Kilgore is running for governor; Terry Kilgore is up for re-election to the House of Delegates.

Since 1996, Willie Mae Kilgore has made more than $8,000 in political contributions, according to campaign finance reports.

Most of the money went to Jerry Kilgore's successful race for attorney general in 2001 and his current gubernatorial campaign. Terry Kilgore received $300 of his mother's money earlier this year. And in 1996, Willie Mae Kilgore contributed $120 to the Republican Party of Virginia.

It is not illegal for a registrar to contribute to a campaign or a party in Virginia.

But a manual for registrars published by the state Board of Elections advises against the practice.

"While the law does not imply that a registrar must be apolitical, it strongly implies that the registrar should do nothing -- other than voting -- that presents the public appearance of favoring one candidate over another," the manual states.

The words "do nothing" are underlined and boldfaced in the manual.

When registrars use their checkbooks to publicly support a candidate, "the problem is one of perception, not legality," said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and a veteran Virginia political analyst.

"The law is quite clear that it's allowed. But on the other hand, people do expect that those who hold these positions are going to be impartial."

Efforts to obtain a comment from Willie Mae Kilgore were unsuccessful.

Over the past year, the registrar has been at the center of controversy over a disputed local election in Scott County, a Republican stronghold of 23,000 in the state's far Southwest corner. Although the votes cast next month under Kilgore's watch will represent just a tiny fraction of the statewide turnout, the issue of partisan election officials extends far past the county lines.

Last month, a report issued by the Commission on Federal Election Reform was critical of the widespread practice of having election officials with party ties or candidate loyalties in charge of a process it called "the heart of democracy."

Rights and responsibilities

Willie Mae Kilgore is one of just two registrars -- out of 134 statewide -- who contributed $100 or more to a campaign over the past nine years, according to an online search of records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in state politics. Donations of less than $100 are not public record.

Although registrars by nature are interested in politics, most choose not to make public contributions.

"We tend to avoid things like that like the plague," said Fairfax County Registrar Jackie Harris, the former president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia.

Yet Willie Mae Kilgore is in the unique position of having two sons on the ballot. "Of course a mother is going to be supportive of her sons running for public office," said political analyst Tom Morris, president of Emory & Henry College.

Because it's already impossible for Kilgore to remove the perception that she would support a family member, Morris said, "a modest contribution to her sons probably doesn't change that appearance very much."

But the $120 Kilgore gave to the Republican Party is another matter.

"It's not the amount," Rozell said. "It's the fact that person has crossed over the line and publicly become associated with the interests of one political party over the other. That's the rub."

Reached at her office Tuesday, Kilgore abruptly ended the conversation without commenting on her contributions, explaining that she had another call to take. About 20 minutes later, a woman who answered the phone at the registrar's office hung up when asked if she was Ms. Kilgore.

On Wednesday, Kilgore was out of the office. She did not return a message left for her then.

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Jerry Kilgore's campaign, defended the contributions.

"She is absolutely within her rights to exercise her First Amendment right to support any candidate she wants, particularly if it is her son," Murtaugh said. "She is well within her rights, she is well within the law, and for gosh sakes, it's her son."

Murtaugh questioned why Willie Mae Kilgore's contributions were newsworthy. "These are stupid questions," he said when asked about the issue.

Ever since questions about the Scott County registrar's office first surfaced last year during a disputed Gate City town election, the Kilgores have dismissed the complaints as partisan potshots.

"It's great sport among the Democrats to attack Jerry Kilgore's mother these days," Murtaugh said. "But generally in Virginia, polite people have considered that out of bounds."

Ray Davis, who as Stafford County registrar has contributed $500 to Democrats, said a registrar should not be considered suspect just because of a political donation.

And even if there were reason to question a registrar's impartiality, Davis said, "There are too many checks and balances in the system to allow anyone to manipulate the vote."

The official word

Although the manual for registrars makes it clear they should avoid political activities that present the appearance of favoritism, there's another official opinion on the matter.

It comes from Jerry Kilgore.

As attorney general in 2003, Kilgore was asked to clarify the extent to which election officials can participate in political activities.

In an opinion requested by an Albermarle County Electoral Board member, Kilgore wrote that electoral board members and registrars should act in a nonpartisan fashion while performing their official duties.

"When not performing those duties," Kilgore wrote, "such officers may participate in partisan political activities" -- as long as those activities are not specifically prohibited by state law. Such forbidden activities for registrars include holding elected office, acting as the chairman of a political party and serving as a paid or volunteer worker for the campaign of a candidate whose name appears on the ballot in the registrar's jurisdiction.

Kilgore's opinion essentially gave a green light for registrars to participate in other activities not spelled out by the law, including attending fundraising events, participating in party meetings and conventions, voting in primaries and contributing to political campaigns.

At the time he issued the opinion, Kilgore had received contributions from a registrar -- his mother.

"That mixes it up even more," Rozell said. "I would say that it is most likely that Kilgore issued that opinion on the merits of the case. But yet again, there's the appearance issue. You have the attorney general, who is a candidate for governor, whose mother is a registrar, issuing an opinion" about whether registrars can make political contributions. "He is a direct beneficiary of that."

Murtaugh responded: "The fact is the law is the law, regardless of who interprets it. There is no prohibition on registrars supporting candidates."

A matter of perception

Some say Willie Mae Kilgore's campaign contributions create a perception of bias. Others say it's more than a perception.

"She has shown time and time again that she is a Republican and not a neutral player in the game," said Rex McCarty, a Democrat seeking to unseat Terry Kilgore. In addition to having two sons with political connections, Willie Mae Kilgore is married to the chairman of the Scott County Republican Party.

The registrar hosts political events at her home, rides on the Republican Party's float in parades and regularly appears at campaign events with GOP politicians, McCarty said. Although McCarty did not take issue with Willie Mae Kilgore's giving money to her sons' campaigns, he said her contributions to the GOP crossed the line.

Because Kilgore has two sons on the ballot, McCarty requested in June that she resign -- or at least take a leave of absence until after the election -- to avoid the "appearance of impropriety." Kilgore refused to step aside, and the Scott County Electoral Board issued a vote of confidence in her favor.

A letter to Kilgore from McCarty's attorney mentioned a state police investigation that culminated in August with the indictment of the ex-mayor of Gate City on 37 counts of election fraud.

Some of Kilgore's critics, including current Gate City Mayor Mark Jenkins, have said the registrar's office played a role in the absentee voting improprieties that plagued the May 4, 2004, town elections for Gate City. Special prosecutor Joel Branscom said that while the investigation raised some questions about procedures in the office, he saw no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

What defines volunteerism?

When Jerry Kilgore kicked off his campaign for governor on March 21 in his hometown of Gate City, his mother helped cook the barbecue and other fixings that were served to a large crowd that assembled in the high school auditorium.

Campaign finance reports show a $787 in-kind contribution for catering made by Willie Mae Kilgore.

In-kind contributions are donations of goods, services or anything else of value, or payments by a third party for goods and services rather than money. The $787 was for the cost of ingredients for the meal, Murtaugh said.

In recent weeks, the state Board of Elections looked into the contribution after receiving a call from a concerned citizen, said Chris Piper, campaign finance administrator for the agency.

Piper said the Kilgore campaign reported the in-kind contribution properly. Less clear, he said, was whether the contribution amounted to volunteer service.

Registrars are prohibited by law from serving as paid or volunteer workers in a campaign. But the law does not clearly define what constitutes volunteering. The question of whether Willie Mae Kilgore was volunteering was not one for the Board of Elections campaign finance division, which looked only at how the expense was reported, Piper said.

Asked about Willie Mae Kilgore's role at the campaign kickoff, Murtaugh said, "I think the technical definition is that she was serving in her role as the mother of the candidate."

Every case is different

Jerry Kilgore is not the only statewide candidate to receive contributions from a family member who is an election official.

Leslie Byrne, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, received more than $10,000 from her husband, Larry, who serves on the Fairfax County electoral board.

But unlike registrars, electoral board members are political appointees who are given more leeway under the law to support a particular candidate or party. Thus the expectation of neutrality for electoral board members is not as high, said Lawrence Haake, the Chesterfield County registrar and president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia.

In Byrne's case, most of the contributions from her husband were in-kind travel expenses. Larry Byrne frequently drives his wife to campaign appearances, her campaign said. Electoral board members are allowed to serve as volunteers for a campaign.

Although Willie Mae Kilgore's situation is a "fine line," Haake said he sees nothing improper about her giving money to her two sons.

"Evil is in the eye of the beholder," Haake said. "If someone wants to say that a mother shouldn't support her sons, they can say that. They can say that a mother registrar shouldn't support her sons.

"But the reality is that she's not operating in a vacuum. ... Willie Mae Kilgore couldn't throw the election to her sons if she wanted to unless everyone in the process joined her in that conspiracy."