No clear answer on whether racist robocalls violate Sunshine Laws

A racist robocall is hijacking the discussion surrounding Sandpoint’s mayoral race, but no one has publicly claimed responsibility for the ad — and that might be at odds with the state’s campaign finance laws.

The Sandpoint Reader reports the robocall went out earlier this week. In the call, a voice mocks candidate Shelby Rognstad’s name and says Rognstad wants to bring “undesireables” to Sandpoint. It also calls Ferguson, Missouri a “violent jungle” filled with “primitive destroyers,” an apparent reference to protests and racial tensions in the city last year. (You’ve really got to hear it for yourself. Here’s a link and full transcript, courtesy of Better Idaho.)

So who’s responsible? Candidate Mose Dunkel condemned the call on his campaign Facebook page. “I have nothing to do with it and honestly i’m sad that a small town campaign would generate this,” Dunkel wrote on Tuesday.

Rognstad also spoke out against the post on the Sandpoint Reader’s Facebook page. “This is not an attack on me. It is an attack on honest elections and our community values,” he wrote. “We should not let this distasteful attack distract us from real issues, like job creation and expanding higher education. We should focus on how we can keep making our community a better place to live.”

The robocall ends with “paid for by Sandpoint United Against Shelby,” but there is no political action committee currently registered under that name in Bonner County, the city of Sandpoint, or on a state level.

If a group collects or spends more than $500 in an election cycle, it must register as a political action committee as soon as it meets that threshold, said Tim Hurst, Chief Deputy Secretary of State. “They should do it before they reach that threshold,” but there is no penalty for not doing so, he added. Independent expenditures on behalf of a candidate don’t have to be reported until seven days before the election.

It’s not clear how much Sandpoint United Against Shelby paid for the robocalls, as no one has filed paperwork for the group.

Idaho code 50-420 says city attorneys and city clerks investigate and enforce election reporting laws for municipalities. Sandpoint city attorney Scot Campbell said his office has received a number of complaints about the robocalls, mostly centered around the content (which, though offensive, isn’t illegal).

“We’ll be looking into it,” Campbell said, adding he thought the call was in poor taste.

Sandpoint has seen anonymous robocalls in the past. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, told Idaho Reports there were robocalls attacking her in the her last two primaries, and at least one was anonymous.

Those calls weren’t racist, Keough added. “They were more political in nature. ‘She’s a liberal, she’s not a conservative,’ that kind of thing.” And over the summer, racist robocalls from an out-of-state white supremacist group hit Idaho landlines, telling Idahoans to “wake up” and “diversity equals white genocide.”

In an interview with Idaho Reports, Dunkel said the calls came as a surprise to him, and he immediately contacted Rognstad to discuss the situation.

“I just have a better campaign to run than that,” Dunkel said, adding the calls were a low-blow and derogatory. “I’m really against negative campaigning.”

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