by Heather Tomlinson
A state board has found that Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler unintentionally violated a campaign finance law.
The Kentucky Registry of Election Finance has referred the case, which began in February when Alice Ping sent a formal complaint to the KREF, to the department’s executive director and general council for further review.
“There’s nothing in the records that would indicate it was an intentional or knowing violation of the law,” said Emily Dennis, general counsel with the KREF.
Ping, wife of local real estate developer Brook Ping, who is also a “unified government” leader, alleged in the complaint that Girdler personally helped pay for the printing and distributing of Pulaski County High School winter sports schedules for the 2013-2014 season but failed to include the “paid for by” statement.
“Girdler asserts that he believed the advertisement in question was exempt from the disclaimer requirement because it does not expressly advocate his election to the office of mayor,” states the registry’s staff report, submitted by Dennis after Thursday’s hearing. “Girdler makes a good faith argument, as the dual-sided advertisement does not overtly solicit a vote, a campaign contribution, or reference Girdler’s 2014 candidacy.
“However, it is clear that Girdler intended for his mayoral campaign to receive a political advertising benefit from the advertisement’s publication, as he used the Girdler Campaign Fund to pay for the advertisement and received a box of calendars for distribution,” the report continues.
According to KRS 121.190(1), “all newspaper or magazine advertising, posters, circulars, billboards, handbills, sample ballots, and paid-for television or radio announcements relating to the candidacy of any person for public office include a disclaimer indicating by whom the cost of the material was paid.” Alice Ping states in her complaint that the basketball schedules — which are small enough to fit into a billfold or pocket and can be folded and unfolded — violate that statute.
The front and back of the schedules have “Mayor Eddie Girdler” in bold, with the phrase “Thanks to every parent, family member, and friend for supporting our students and athletes.”
Girdler reported the $300 cost of the schedules, which came out of his campaign fund and not out of city funds, to the KREF. A search of Girdler’s campaign finances on the KREF website (www.kref.state.ky.us) for the upcoming May 20 primary election, reported as of Dec. 31, 2013, shows that Girdler paid out a total of $378.84 out of his campaign account, which was shown as having an ending balance of $6,831.16.
Girdler is running for re-election and will be facing off against current City Councilor Jim Rutherford and local businessman Alan Keck in the May 20 primary election. The top two vote-getters will move on to the November general election.
The issue boils down to the size of the schedules. According to KRS 121.190, “disclaimers shall not be required for calling cards smaller than three and one-half (3 1/2) inches by five (5) inches ...”
When the schedules are folded, they don’t exceed the 3 1/2 by 5 inches. But when unfolded, the committee found that the schedules measure out to be 4 inches by 5 inches — one-half inch over the minimum size.
Girdler, in his March 11 response to the original complaint, stated that once he was made aware that the calendars would exceed the three and one-half inches by five inches if unfolded, he destroyed all of the remaining schedules in his possession “with the exception of two that I am safekeeping should they need to be produced at a later date.”
Girdler in his response also said he “respectfully” sought guidance from the KREF “with regard to the issue presented.”
Dennis said a civil penalty will be handed down in the case. She pointed out that the case would have mandated a criminal penalty and would have been referred to the Kentucky Attorney general’s office if Girdler was found to have knowingly violated campaign finance laws.
Civil penalties may include a fine of up to $5,000.
Girdler didn’t attend Thursday’s hearing because he was out of the state. Attorney Charles Cole represented him in the case.
When reached by phone Thursday afternoon, Girdler called the complaint a “ridiculous accusation” — the same phrasing he used when discussing the issue earlier this week with the Commonwealth Journal.
“I’m very pleased and honored to be helping the kids of Somerset and Pulaski,” said Girdler. “Unfortunately, there are some people who feel instead of looking at those things, they look at ways of trying to make accusations out of it.”
Girdler emphasized that the violation was an unintentional one on his part.
Ping, through email, explained why she filed the complaint about the pocket schedules.
“My purpose in filing the complaint regarding the schedule cards was to see if the City of Somerset was paying for Pulaski County Basketball team schedule cards with Eddie Girdler’s name,” Ping said. “ ... now we know by way of KREF who paid for the PC Basketball Schedule cards and it was not the city.”
This is the second complaint Ping has filed against Girdler in recent weeks. The KREF on Feb. 28 received a formal complaint from Ping alleging Girdler of vote-buying.
Ping’s vote-buying complaint was based on a decision by Somerset City Council, handed down during the Jan. 13 city meeting, to offer a one-time $30 credit to city utility customers — those that use city water, sewer, and/or natural gas — who live in the city. They also voted to offer a one-time $15 credit to natural gas customers located outside the city limits. The $15 credit also applied to Ferguson residents currently receiving a city utility service.
The offer didn’t apply to businesses.
Ping has also taken issue with recent advertisements, paid for by city money, that informed readers of city events but featured Girdler’s name, which she said “ ... was so dominant in the ads they were like a campaign ad.
“I hope Eddie Girdler will stop promoting his campaign with city money like advertisements,” Ping continued.
Ping said Girdler “ ... wants to drive a wedge between the City of Somerset and the rest of Pulaski County.
“I think Somerset and the rest of the County need to get along and work together for everyone’s best interest,” added Ping. “Just because you do not live in the city of Somerset does not mean you are against the city. That is my major disagreement with Mayor Girdler. No one, including myself, is trying to take anything from the City of Somerset. That is just the Mayor’s political spin.”
Girdler during the Monday, March 10 Somerset City Council meeting said Ping “ ... is a county resident who believes that we shouldn’t give things to our residents but they can take everything we’ve got.”