Featured, Government, Opinion

Looking at Political Contributions and Wondering Why

Campaign finance information is available at the WV Secretary of State’s website which lists the contributions received by candidates who have filed for State office and Circuit Court and Family Court Judge.

When scanning the website in search of large contributions, the name of one Putnam County resident turns up — Phillip M. Stowers. Stowers is one of two incumbent Putnam County circuit court judges. Stowers’ campaign has amassed $101,584.33 to assist in his effort to continue to preside over cases in Winfield for eight more years.

The $101,584.33 total is not the highest among candidates seeking election to serve as a West Virginia circuit judge. The Stowers campaign total makes it the fifth ranking member of the six-member $100,000 contribution circuit court judge campaign collection club. Other members of the exclusive club are Stephanie Abraham’s campaign (8th Circuit, Division 5) with $184,665.00; Ron Wilson’s campaign (1st Circuit, Division 1) with $150,575.00; Maryclaire Akers’ campaign (8th Circuit, Division 7) with $125,090.38; Carrie Webster’s (8th Circuit, Division 1) with $102,906.00; and Chad Lovejoy’s campaign (6th Circuit, Division 1) with $100,715.87.

The $100,000 club is quite exclusive in that a total of 127 candidates have filed for 79 circuit judge openings statewide. If the bottom 121 campaigns were divided into a middle club (Less than $100,000 but more than $0 in contributions) and bottom club ($0 in contributions), there would be 79 members in the middle club and 42 bottom club members. Only 10 of the middle club members report contributions of $20,000 or more.

It is not apparent (at least too me) why this distribution of campaign collections exists. An inspection of the $100,000 club reveals that all three campaigns of 8th Circuit candidates and 6th Circuit candidate Chad Lovejoy are unopposed. Phillip Stowers is opposed by Jon Hoover in the 7th Circuit (Putnam), while Ron Wilson is opposed by 2 candidates in the 1st Circuit (northern portion of northern panhandle).

An unopposed candidate has minimal campaign expenses. What happens to the surplus? Possibilities include transferring the extra to an account for a future election to the same office, returning donations to the individual contributors, and donating to non-profit organization which meet well-defined requirements. One possibility is not private use.

Campaign donations cannot, by West Virginia law, purchase influence. A judge must recuse his or herself from cases in which there is reasonable cause to believe that his or her ruling may not be impartial.

Individuals and businesses cannot claim their contributions as expenses. Theoretically, all campaign contributions are friends helping friends. That said, the case of donations directed to campaigns of unopposed candidates is difficult to explain.

No campaign for Circuit Court Judge can qualify for the $100,000 club without lots of donors. The maximum contribution allowed is $2,800.

Donors, amount of contribution, donor occupation and donor address can be found online by going to https://cfrs.wvsos.gov/#/index and clicking on ALL CANDIDATE DATA. Click on a candidate of interest, then on FILINGS, and then on 2023 2nd, 3rd and 4th quarterly reports.

Reports for campaigns of the two Putnam County candidates seeking election to the Circuit 7, Division 1 judge position are quite different. Candidate Jon Hoover’s campaign lists a single contribution of $1,000 from Eric Tarr for the 2nd quarter, no 3rd quarter contributions, and two 4th quarter contributions of $250 from Dale Hill and $350 from Tom Hill of Arizona.

Incumbent Judge Phillip Stowers’ campaign committee treasurer Glenn Yeager lists $46,563.00 2nd quarter, $12,421.33 3rd quarter, and $42,600.00 4th quarter contributions.

Yeager’s 2nd quarter filing lists a private fundraiser held at 118 Capitol Street in Charleston on April 25, 2023 at which seven donors gave the $2,800 maximum allowed and a June 27, 2023 fundraiser at 500 Lee Street in Charleston at which attorney Eric Embree donated the $2,800 maximum. The April 25 maximum contributors were attorneys Joshua Pearson and Brian Prim of Prim Law Firm, Mary Prim, William Tiano and Tony O’Dell of Tiano O’Dell, Matthew Stonestreet and Troy Giatras of Giatras Law Firm. In total, 30 lawyers made contributions of more than $250 at the April 25 and June 27 events. The 2nd quarter filing included 15 contributions additional to the 30 which were $250 or less.

The Stowers’ 3rd quarter filing lists an August 24 private fundraiser at Sleepy Hollow in Hurricane and a September 26 public fundraiser at the Marshall Hall of Fame Cafe. The filing also lists a $1,000 contribution from Huntington Mayor and Democratic Party candidate for Governor on September 24th. The largest contribution at the August 24th event was attorney Scott Tyree. Huntington attorney Kenneth Hicks donation of $2,000 was the highest at the September 26 event.

Stowers’ campaign report lists non-fundraising event contributions from 20 individuals during the 4th quarter and proceeds from a private fundraising event held at 118 Capitol Street in Charleston on October 18th. Individuals contributing the maximum $2,800 were Ray Burke of Better Foods; Amber Stevens, G & G Builders; Gary Young, G & G Builders; Penny Young; and Ben Salango, attorney and 2020 Democratic Party candidate for Governor. The report also lists a $2,800 donation from Salango For Kanawha County Commission 09/17.

Putnam voters will elect two circuit court judges on May 14th. One will be incumbent Judge Joseph Reeder for 7th Circuit, Division 2. Reeder is unopposed and a member of the $0 contribution club. The 7th Circuit, Division 1 judge will be either Hoover or Stowers.

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