A legal fight is brewing over whether allies of Senate President Russell Pearce can use corporate funds to fight the recall against him.
Lisa Hauser, attorney for a committee trying to quash the recall, contends that the normal prohibitions against corporate donations to elect candidates do not apply, at least not yet. She told Capitol Media Services Friday that as long as the funds are spent to convince people not to support the recall or to try to knock the measure off the ballot, there is no "election."
But state Elections Director Amy Bjelland is warning that using corporate dollars runs afoul of state law.
She said Arizona law spells out that neither corporate funds nor union money can be used to influence a state election. And that, Bjelland said, goes beyond giving to a candidate or a foe.
"Causing an election to happen or preventing it from happening, influences an election," Bjelland wrote in an informal legal opinion.
Hauser and her client, Citizens Who Oppose the Pearce Recall, are unwilling to accept that answer without a fight.
She will try to get a formal legal opinion from Attorney General Tom Horne. But if Horne balks or takes too long, that leaves the possibility of taking the issue before a judge.
And that could affect funding of all future recall elections.
In the interim, Matt Tolman who chairs the anti-recall committee said late Friday it is returning any corporate donations it already has received. Tolman said he does not know how much they total; campaign finance reports are not due to be filed for months.
More than the efforts of Hauser's committee to keep Pearce in office are at stake. Team America, a political action committee formed by former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, is e-mailing requests nationwide to help Pearce.
"Because it is a recall effort corporate funds are welcomed and contributions are unlimited," wrote Bay Buchanan, co-chair of the PAC which is devoted to fighting illegal immigration.
"We will be working with Russell every week to make certain he has what he needs to beat this recall," her message continues. "We need to keep Russell in the battle!"
Bjelland told Capitol Media Services she does agree with half of what Buchanan says: There are no limits to what individuals can give to committees that are not directly run by the candidate.
Hauser acknowledged that corporate funds probably cannot be used to specifically tell people to vote for Pearce when the actual campaign is taking place. But she said they can be used to do everything possible to prevent the election from taking place at all, including a possible court challenge to the petitions.
Pearce said he has been contacted by both groups and is working with them.
How quickly the election will take place remains up in the air.
The Secretary of State's Office reported Friday it has completed its preliminary review of the petitions, seven days earlier than its deadline. Maricopa County now has 60 days to review the petitions with the more than 18,300 signatures to see if there are at least 7,756 valid ones.
That deadline comes in early August.
But Gov. Jan Brewer can take up to 15 days to formally call the election. If the county takes the full 60 days and Brewer waits beyond Aug. 10, the election cannot occur in November but instead gets pushed back to March.
Hauser's contention is that whatever happens until there are actually candidates running against Pearce is not subject to the laws which govern corporate contributions.
"There are all kinds of things that require resources," she said. That includes having the committee do its own review of the petitions to look for anything that would keep Pearce from having to face a recall.
What it also would fund is the court fight that would result if the Pearce allies contend that the petitions are invalid and the election should be halted.
Hauser said, though, that corporate funds could be used to tell people why they should oppose the recall effort so that they will contribute money for the legal fight.
"It's OK to raise money right now by telling people that the recall supporters are nogoodnicks and Sen. Pearce is a great guy," she said. And that can continue while any court battles continue.
But Hauser said the rules on corporate funding become much stricter when the actual race begins and Pearce is running against one or more candidates who want his seat.
Hauser said even if Bjelland is correct about the restrictions in state law - a point she is not conceding - those may be unconstitutional.
She pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court last year concluded that both corporations and unions are entitled to influence elections. The justices said these entities have the same First Amendment rights as individuals.