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W.Va. execs among those who exceeded election donation limits, records show

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Four West Virginia coal industry executives who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of Republican candidates and committees in the 2012 election appear to have exceeded federal limits on political donations, according to election filings.

Federal law places limits on how much money a person can give, in one election cycle, to candidates, party committees and political action committees.

In the 2012 election, a person could give up to $46,200, total, to candidates for federal office. A person could also donate up to $70,800 to political parties and PACs.

At least three West Virginians - Thomas S. Cushman, of Beckley; Jack R. Phillips, of Ghent, and James W. Hayhurst, of Wheeling - donated more than the $46,200 candidate limit, according to Federal Election Commission filings compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Cushman and Bennett K. Hatfield, of Charleston, exceeded the $70,800 donation limit for parties and PACs, according to FEC filings.

Hatfield, the president and CEO of Patriot Coal, said through a spokeswoman that he inadvertently exceeded the limit and that he requested refunds to bring himself into compliance. Hatfield gave $82,350 to party committees and PACs in 2012, according to FEC filings.

"Those refunds were requested during October and November 2012, and were received by early December 2012," Janine Orf, a Patriot spokeswoman, wrote in an email. "Mr. Hatfield believes that his net contributions for that election cycle are fully compliant with the limit."

When asked who Hatfield requested refunds from and for how much, Orf wrote: "The refunds should be reflected in the respective public filings. Patriot declines to provide further details at this time."

FEC filings available through the Center for Responsive Politics show no records of refunds issued to Hatfield.

Cushman, Phillips and Hayhurst did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails requesting comment.

Federal law places limits on how much campaigns, parties and PACs can accept from one individual. For instance, in 2012 a person could give a candidate no more than $2,500 per election, although that allows $2,500 for both a primary election and a general election.

The onus is on a candidate to decline donations that are too large, and they can be punished for failing to do so.

Less well known are the aggregate limits, which limit how much a donor can give, in total, to any number of candidates. So a person could give a few dollars to every candidate in the country, or the maximum $5,000 to nine candidates, but in no case could the total amount exceed $46,200. (Limits are indexed to rise with inflation, so for 2014 the limits are $2,600 per candidate and $48,600 in total.)

The aggregate limits are much more difficult for the FEC to enforce than the individual limits. It's easy for a campaign to refuse a donation that exceeds the $2,500 limit. But because a campaign cannot easily know who else a donor has given to, they are very unlikely to refuse a donation that exceeds a donor's aggregate limit.

The FEC looks for violations but also relies on individuals to bring violations to their attention.

"The reports analysis division has a process that reviews for federal law violation," said Christian Hilland, an FEC spokesman. "Anybody can file a complaint with the FEC saying an individual has exceeded their biennial contribution limit."

Hilland said he could not comment on any specific cases. He also said he did not know how many violations were discovered by the FEC and how many came from submitted complaints.

In May, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit, filed a complaint with the FEC asking it to investigate 32 people nationwide, including Cushman, for exceeding the donation limits.

CREW's executive director, Melanie Sloan, said they had received confirmation that the FEC was investigating, but nothing more.

"Usually, it's just when someone files a complaint," Sloan said of FEC investigations. "But when they file a complaint they have to investigate."

The penalty for violating the contribution limits is a fine, up to double the amount of the contributions.

The FEC's website warns people not to violate the limits accidentally.

Sloan said that the donations they filed complaints about were not accidental.

"We picked people who were sophisticated players in the world of campaign donations," she said. "People who contribute regularly know what the limits are."

It can be difficult to track the donations of individual donors. That's because there is no universal identifier for individual donors.

For instance Cushman, an executive with Phillips Machine Services, which makes mining equipment, gave $114,185 to candidates and $77,000 to parties and PACs in the 2012 election cycle. Both of those numbers exceed the limits, but Cushman's donations are listed under the names Thomas S. Cushman, Thomas Cushman and Tom Cushman, making it more difficult to compile the totals.

Donors with different listed addresses can also make it more difficult. Even adding something as simple as a prefix, like Mr., can make it more difficult to track the FEC filings.

Phillips, also an executive with Phillips Machine Services, donated $127,083 to candidates, nearly three times the allowable limit, but he did so under the names Jack Phillips and Jack R. Phillips and sometimes under a Beckley address and sometimes under an address in nearby Ghent.

Phillips also appears to have exceeded the donation limit for the 2010 election cycle, when he donated $48,900 to federal candidates. The limit for donations to candidates in 2010 was $45,600.

Hayhurst, the president of David Stanley Consultants, which provides staffing and consulting for mines, gave $106,600 to candidates in 2012, according to FEC filings.

In total, the four executives made 222 federal political donations in the 2012 election cycle and 207 of those were to Republican candidates or committees. Of the others, six donations went to Democrats (five of those six went to Sen. Joe Manchin), eight went to mining-related PACs and one went to the American Hospital Association.

The vast majority of the money donated by the four men went to out-of-state politicians, although some stayed in West Virginia.

Rep. David McKinley received $12,100 from the four men, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito received $7,400 and former Delegate Rick Snuffer, who was defeated in his congressional race by Rep. Nick Rahall, received $8,400. Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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