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Dems say 'robocalls' legal, despite GOP allegations

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney's campaign filed a formal complaint with Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's office on Tuesday over automated "robocalls" that the state Democratic Party made to Republican voters.

But the state Democratic chairman said his party cleared the phone calls with Tennant's office before they were made. And West Virginia lawmakers have removed references to "phone banks" from laws governing electioneering communications, after a federal judge ruled them unconstitutional.

On Sunday, the state Democratic Party began making several thousand robocalls to registered Republican voters in districts that elected Republicans to the state Legislature.

The robocalls criticized two recent television advertisements, paid for by the Republican Governors Association, attacking Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for supporting a new mine reclamation bill and a bill to restrict some benefits, not including health-care benefits, given to retired state workers and public school teachers.

All Republican senators and a wide majority of Republicans in the House of Delegates voted for both bills. The West Virginia Coal Association also backed the new mine reclamation bill, which raised taxes on coal to improve environmental cleanups.

In a letter filed with Tennant's office on Tuesday, Maloney campaign manager Seth P. Wimer wrote, "The robocall is false and misleading and is a violation of West Virginia election law.

"As you know, West Virginia election law requires those who fund electioneering communication to clearly identify themselves in the message," Wimer wrote. "I would like to request that your office investigate this election law violation."

Jake Glance, a spokesman for Tennant's office, would not discuss the Maloney complaint other than to acknowledge it had been received.

Speaking generally about state election law, Glance noted that the word "robocall" does not appear in state code, and "the phrase 'phone bank' was removed from state code in 2010 following a 2008 ruling" by U.S. District Judge Thomas E. Johnston.

The 2008 ruling came after the state's disclosure laws for electioneering communications were challenged by the Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom and the anti-abortion group West Virginians for Life. Johnson granted the groups a preliminary injunction shortly before the 2008 general election.

After that, state lawmakers went back to the drawing board and removed disclosure requirements from efforts involving phone banks, mass mailings and billboards. But Johnston again struck down much of the new law in 2011.

Larry Puccio, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said Tuesday that party officials consulted Tennant's office before began making any calls.

"Prior to the voter education calls that we placed this weekend, we sought and received information from the Secretary of State's office," Puccio said.

He also referred to a Maloney news release from Monday night in which Wimer referred to the robocalls as "criminal" and "dishonest."

"While I cannot speak for the majority of Republicans who were attacked for their votes in these ads by Bill Maloney's allies, the Democratic Party would accept Mr. Maloney's apology for his wild accusations from his late night press release," Puccio said.

Puccio said the Republican Governors Association either "has thrown the majority of Republican legislators under the bus for Maloney's personal gain who voted for this responsible legislation.

"Or they have purposely attempted to mislead the public by not letting them know that this was bipartisan legislation, supported by most Republican legislators that they are attacking in their ads."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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