The Marshall County Election Board held a Campaign Finance Violation hearing Wednesday afternoon regarding a violation of Indiana Code (IC) 3-9-4-17-9 (a)(11) committed by Hensley Fabricating & Equipment, Inc.

Attorney at Law Anthony J. Wagner and National Sales Manager of Hensley Fabricating & Equipment, Inc. Travis Hensley did not dispute that a violation had taken place, though it was not intentional. Hensley took full responsibility and respectfully expressed remorse for the misunderstanding of complex campaign finance laws.

Secretary of the Marshall County Election Board Deborah VanDeMark summarized that the corporation donated a total of $4,000; $1,000 to two individuals and $2,000 to “the pack”. The corporation failed to designate a contribution as required by IC 3-9-2-5 (c). Referring to IC 3-9-2-5 (c); a corporation or labor organization may make a contribution to a political action committee if the contribution does not exceed any of the limits prescribed under Section 4 of this chapter and is designated for disbursement to a specific candidate or committee listed under Section 4.

If the county election board determines that a corporation or labor organization has failed to designate a contribution in violation of IC 3-9-2-5 (c), the board could assess, reduce, or waive a civil penalty by unanimous vote.

Indiana Law limits political campaign contributions for corporations to a maximum of $2,000 annually to local campaigns. Hensley Fabricating & Equipment, Inc. contributed $1,000 to Conservatives for Johnson, $1,000 to Conservatives for Nicole Cox, and $2,000 to Better Government Hears People (BGHP). Chair for BGHP Tim Harman sent a letter to the Election Board indicating that the $2,000 contribution made to BGHP was returned to the corporation.

Wagner illustrated through questioning his client that Hensley Fabricating is not a publicly-traded company; shareholders are members of the Hensley family. It was confirmed that Hensley was authorized to make political contributions on behalf of the corporate entity set on maximum limits.

Travis Hensley made one political contribution as an individual which was in the amount of $25 to the Trump Campaign. No campaign limits were violated with that contribution. The Hensley Corporation had not made any political contributions prior to this campaign.

Hensley confirmed that he knew there were limits on campaign contributions. Rather than seek the counsel of his attorney and accountant, he relied on personal research that he conducted online through the Google search engine and with conversations with members of “the pack” and thought he had understood the distinctions. “I found that we could donate a maximum of $2,000 to local campaigns and then $2,000 to a political action committee per calendar year.”

Wagner suggested that the statutes were complicated for legal professionals and election law experts to understand, much more so for laypeople. He noted that the violation only occurred because the corporation contributed $2,000 to individual candidates and $2,000 to the pack with the understanding that a portion could be used for local races resulting in a failure to designate that the money to the pack be restricted from use for local candidates which would have made his contributions admissible. “By failing to designate that’s where the issue is.”

Wagner illustrated that IC 3-9-2-4 (8) was vague in differentiating between “central committees other than a state committee”. IC 3-9-2-4 states: During a year a corporation or labor organization may not make total contributions in excess of (8) an aggregate of two thousand dollars ($2,000) apportioned in any manner among all central committees other than state committees. “This entire section does not have definitions. There is no definition of what a central committee is. There is no definition of what a pack is in here. So, we’re basically asking laypeople to look through this.”

He also suggested that there was a difference between what a candidate should know and do and what a corporate donor ought to know and do. “He thought he was giving the contributions that were the appropriate levels. The misunderstanding is that he was viewing the pack as a separate entity like one of these all-central committees other than state committees.” The pack did not fit that definition.

Wagner said that there is a lot of outdated information on the internet and that he advised Hensley that he should have consulted with his attorney. It took Wagner two passes through the statute and a review of the Candidate Manual to discern appropriate navigation of corporate contributions. Wagner emphasized that the violation was not a deliberate act of maleficence. The contribution was not used, was refunded, and had no bearing on the election. “I think that this was a well-intentioned mistake rather than a deliberate violation.”

Vice President of the Board Ralph “Rick” Huff said, “It seems clear to me there was a violation. It’s clear to me that it was unintentional. It’s clear to me that the law is not always easy to follow.” He wondered if doing nothing would result in a reduced effort to comply with standards.

Nicole Haskins, who brought the violations to the attention of the Marshall County Election Board, was present for the meeting and was thanked for her diligence.

President of the Board Sean Surrisi noted that it can be confusing, and everyone could have done better but that the money was returned and that it did not have an impact on the election. He was inclined to waive the penalty but if that was not agreeable to the board by unanimous vote, he suggested a reduced fine be imposed.

VanDeMark and Huff were not inclined to waive the penalty but agreed to a reduced fine.

The board unanimously approved a fine of $250 due by June 1 payable to the Marshall County Election Board. The board will not forward the matter to the Marshall County Prosecutor’s Office.

Important dates to remember are that the Party Chair must notify the Marshall County Circuit Court Clerk if they will fill ballot vacancies by June 30. Ballot vacancy forms need to be filed by July 5. School board filings are open from July 27 until August 26 by 12 p.m. (noon).

Photo:  Attorney at Law Anthony J. Wagner and National Sales Manager of Hensley Fabricating & Equipment, Inc. Travis Hensley

Article and photo by Jamie Fleury Pilot News Staff Writer