DA: Group won’t face charges, fines over sales tax campaign ads

Vote No sign on sales tax pictured in October.
Vote No sign on sales tax pictured in October. File photo

The initial campaign materials urging Wichitans to “vote no” on the November sales tax did not contain legally required statements, but the Sedgwick County District Attorney has determined there will be no fines or charges for the Coalition for a Better Wichita.

The DA’s office said in a statement that “while the letter of the law was not followed, the intent of the law was fulfilled.”

Kansas statute says it is a Class C misdemeanor to pay for political advertising in a newspaper without labeling it as advertising and including the name of the chair of the organization; to pay for advertising on radio or TV without “Paid for” or “Sponsored by” followed by the name of the sponsoring organization and chairperson or treasurer; or to publish a flier, brochure or political fact sheet without that information.

The initial complaint from a co-chair of the “yes” campaign stated that people “believed to be the Coalition for a Better Wichita and/or its Chairman Trent Sebits have been running print newspaper ads in the Wichita Eagle, financing Robo Calls, and mailing brochures and other campaign materials to Wichita, Kansas residents in violation of the criminal statute KSA 25-2407(a)(3)(4)(5).”

Sebits wouldn’t comment.

If someone is found guilty of violating the state statute, the penalty could be a month in jail, a $500 fine per violation, or both.

The DA’s office said it contacted the coalition after it received the complaint and that the official “successfully took steps to promptly bring campaign materials to be broadcast or distributed in the future into compliance with the law” once it was aware of the violation.

“The investigation also revealed that coalition officials had been provided legal counsel regarding the requirements of state and local election laws regarding campaign materials. The officials were advised by an out-of-state law firm – incorrectly – that running ads against the sales tax measure did not give rise to registration, reporting or disclaimer requirements under applicable law.”

An Eagle investigation before the election looked at Federal Communications Commission filings for local broadcasters and found that the “no” campaign spent nearly half a million dollars on advertising with TV and radio stations, while the “yes” campaign spent about $60,000 as of Oct. 18.

“The Coalition for a Better Wichita has been running numerous radio and television ads, mailers and robo calls, so it’s likely violations have been in the thousands,” the complaint said.

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

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