Gov. Asa Hutchinson called on the Arkansas Democratic Party today to pull down $15,000 in radio ads it bought in support of his Democratic opponent, Jared Henderson, because he said they violated campaign finance law. UPDATE: The Democratic Party issued a statement later indicating Hutchinson was right, though the statement stopped well short of explicitly admitting that.

In a letter to Democratic Chair Michael John Gray, Hutchinson said it was clear Henderson coordinated in the making of the ads, because recordings of Henderson are included.

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The state Ethics Commission ruled on a somewhat similar improper coordination complaint made in 2014 against Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who appeared in an ad purchased by a political group, the Republican Attorneys General Association. The Ethics Commission found no foul in $400,000 worth of ads featuring Rutledge. But, in one key difference with the Democratic ad for Henderson, the ads didn’t contain “express advocacy” for Rutledge’s election, though that was clearly the point.

The central issue in Hutchinson’s complaint is whether the Democratic Party can make an independent expenditure (on which there are no dollar limits) in support of its candidate. Independent expenditures may include express advocacy. Otherwise, it may contribute no more than $2,700 directly to Henderson’s campaign.

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Jamie Barker, a spokesman for Hutchinson, said even if the Democratic Party were to make that argument (and he’s dismissive of it because of what he views as obvious coordination in production of the ad) there’s no paperwork on file with the state under the name of the Democratic Party of Arkansas for an independent expenditure committee. He contends it had to have been formed before the money was committed.

Hutchinson noted he’d been criticized by Henderson for not doing more to ferret out unethical behavior and so he wanted to be sure to call attention to what he sees as unethical ads for Henderson.

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Hutchinson said he didn’t plan to make a formal ethics complaint.

I am writing this letter assuming that the violation was based upon a misunderstanding of the requirements of Arkansas law. Regardless, this constitutes a violation of law that justifies action by the Arkansas Ethics Commission. I trust the Commission’s review will not be necessary since the law is clear on this violation.

UPDATE: At mid-afternoon, the Democratic Party responded. Here’s the response in full:

LITTLE ROCK — Democratic Party of Arkansas Communications Director Reed Brewer released the following statement regarding the party’s recent radio advertisements:

“Upon further review of the radio advertisements in question, the Democratic Party of Arkansas has decided to suspend additional runs. As a party, we are committed to transparency and to following all ethical rules and standards.” 

I asked: “Does that mean the governor was right?”

I’ll let you know if there’s any elaboration.

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Hutchinson provided transcripts of the ads, including this one: