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Cash donations trip up McDonald campaign

McDonald Campaign Contributions Pg 1

Sheriff Charlie McDonald and his supporters were pleased when they took in thousands of dollars at a golf tournament and campaign fundraiser last Nov. 1 at Etowah Valley Country Club.

The golfers came pouring in, a surprising number of them prepared to pay their fees and donations in cash. Three months later, McDonald and his team received stunning news. A state law on cash donations had busted his campaign. The blunder caused the longtime lawman but first time political candidate to acknowledge that campaign finance law is a part of the statutes new to him.
The campaign faces the likelihood that the state Board of Elections will force it to forfeit $3,000 in illegal cash donations. State law prohibits campaigns from accepting a cash contribution of more than $50.
Appointed to the sheriff's job in March of 2012, McDonald faces two opponents in the Republican primary on May 6. McDonald's campaign finance report covering 2013 showed that he took in $20,685 and spent $11,735, ending the year with cash on hand of $8,950.
A Hendersonville Lightning review of McDonald's campaign finance report showed that he took cash donations of $3,965. State law prohibits those over $50, which totaled $3,050.

The Etowah event brought a crowd of golfers, McDonald recalled.
"We were really overwhelming the poor guys at Etowah who were trying to get folks out on the course and the part about cash just totally went over our heads," he said. "We had
some that had showed up looking at making checks on business accounts and were not aware we couldn't do that. It's got to be a personal contribution. That part of the issue of not accepting over $50 in cash was something we should have been aware of."
McDonald, who took office after the resignation of Sheriff Rick Davis, sought the appointment as a reformer and has said that he has put in strict professional standards. He
and his campaign team were meticulous about taking the name, phone number and address of every donor. In fact, they thought their report was letter perfect.
"We actually got the thing in several weeks ahead of time," he said. "Actually what I really expected to hear is this is one of the best documented campaign finance reports we've ever had."
Instead, the Henderson County Board of Elections personnel that deal with the reports all the time flagged the cash donations.
"They were able to tell us you've got some violations there," he said. "At this pint we went into, 'oh my gosh,' because we strive so hard to give people good cause to have confidence in our ethics and integrity and everything."
McDonald's treasurer, Chae Davis, came into the office two weeks ahead of time to make sure she had filled out the form properly. Henderson County Elections Director Beverly Cunningham spotted the violation in the large the cash donations. Once the money goes into the campaign account, she said, the candidate can't take it out and give it back.
"The day he signed and filed it I did a 'prohibited contributions form" that I sent to the state campaign finance division" of the Board of Elections, Cunningham said. "So at some point he will get a letter telling him what he has to do. Once the money is deposited into his campaign finance account there's nothing he can do. The state's pretty strict in how they handle it."
The director of the state campaign finance division did not return a call seeking comment before the print deadline of the Lightning.
McDonald has already found out he can't return the money to donors.
"We asked, 'Can we go ahead and give it back?' And the answer was no, once it's been deposited, no you just can't give it back," he said.

A 'mea culpa'

McDonald acknowledged that as a law officer he would make an arrest even though someone expressed ignorance of the law.
"That's exactly right, and that's why when this whole thing came up there wasn't really anything I could say except mea culpa," he said. "I guess I could go back and say, although it's not an excuse, is we're amateurs when it comes to campaigning. The thing I'm so thankful for is we saw exactly how that money came in."
The campaign, he said, is done with cash donations, although by law it can take them up to $50.
"We're going to be asking for campaign donors to write a check through the end of the election," he said. "I guess really my big concern is as much as we need to the money to run this (campaign) office, we hate we weren't better stewards of the $3,000."
The McDonald campaign sent out a news release about the mistake as soon as it became aware of it.
"We know it happened," he said. He made the call to acknowledge the error, instead of waiting for reporters or an election opponent to "ask me about something I already knew that I hadn't told anybody about," he said. "An explanation is warranted so we're glad to put it out there."