U.S. Chamber endorsement of opponent irks Vollor

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 19, 2000

Warren County Circuit Court Judge Frank Vollor, seeking a seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court, said he is unhappy about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsing the incumbent he’s seeking to unseat.

In a statement Wednesday from Washington, U.S. Chamber president Jim Wootton said the group is backing incumbent Justices Lenore Prather, Kay Cobb and Jim Smith. Vollor will face Smith in the Nov. 7 general election.

The Chamber also endorsed candidate Keith Starrett, one of two circuit judges opposing appointed Justice Oliver Diaz.

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“I am disappointed in them and the whole situation,” Vollor said this morning. “They have never even talked to me.”

The announcement of the endorsements came one day after questions were raised about the estimated $420,000 the pro-business group has spent in state elections.

“All the candidates we have endorsed are strong reformers dedicated to the rule of law,’ and litigation fairness for plaintiffs and defendants alike,” Wootton said.

The U.S. Chamber’s involvement was criticized Tuesday by the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, whose membership also had contributed heavily to judicial candidates including the opponents of Cobb, Starrett and Smith.

The U.S. Chamber has paid for television advertisements for Cobb and Starrett.

“For what reason would they (U.S. Chamber) come down here and throw so much money at Smith unless they had some kind of assurance he was going to win?” Vollor asked. “It seems the political lobbyists in Washington are reaching all the states.”

Diaz, who is running against Starrett and Billy Joe Landrum to keep a seat on the court, said the advertisements could be a violation of campaign finance law.

“Keith Starrett has been the one who has decried the high costs of these campaigns and I agree with him, and here he is accepting $150,000 in out-of-state money from a group who has not disclosed itself to the Mississippi secretary of state’s office,” Diaz said.

Said Starrett, “Certainly I’m concerned about following the law. I didn’t have any control about it. I don’t know what I can do about it.”

David Blount, spokesman for Secretary of State Eric Clark, said any group that raises or spends more than $200 on behalf of a candidate in Mississippi is acting as a political action committee.

“That means they need to register with the Secretary of State’s Office, and the law requires that they disclose where they are getting their money from and how they are spending it,” Blount said.

Blount said the law requires PACs to register within 10 days of beginning political activity. The U.S. Chamber has not registered.

Mississippi campaign finance law limits PAC and individual contributions to $5,000 for Supreme Court candidates. Corporations are limited to $1,000. The reporting deadline for PAC campaign spending is Oct. 31.

An organization may be fined $50 a day for failure to file a report, with the fine not to exceed $500, Blount said.