FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Candidates Challenge Simpson Debate Legitimacy
Iowa City, Iowa - September 23, 2014 - Four candidates for Iowa's vacant United States Senate seat are questioning the legitimacy of the debate scheduled to be held at Simpson College on Sunday, September 28. "This is a private affair, completely controlled by two of the candidates," says Rick Stewart, an Independent candidate. "Yet it is being promoted by Iowa media as if it were a public debate. Perhaps it is simple ignorance on the part of TV station KCCI, the Des Moines Register, and Simpson College, but the statements and actions of these so-called 'sponsors' are clearly misleading Iowa voters."
The group of four candidates points out the pre-established objective criteria required to exclude a legally qualified candidate from a public debate have yet to be revealed. "If these criteria existed, surely they would be made available to excluded candidates like myself," says Doug Butzier, the Libertarian Party candidate. "I find it highly irregular that all of my inquiries have gone unanswered."
Bob Quast added his voice to the chorus. "It is hard not to be suspicious when the two candidates who bought over $800,000 in TV commercials from KCCI are each receiving sixty minutes of free air time, and I am excluded. It seems possible the 'objective criteria' may include 'paid us almost a million dollars in advertising money.'"
IRS regulations forbid colleges such as Simpson from participating in any campaign activity for or against political candidates. "A political debate broadcast on TV and covered in major newspapers," says Ruth Smith, another excluded candidate, "is clearly a campaign activity. And when I am prevented from participating it is clearly a campaign activity against me." Smith points out Simpson College is doing much more than providing a venue. "When Simpson officials are responsible for everything from printing tickets to arranging security for the debate," Smith says, "and when the executive director of their Culver Center is overseeing a Simpson team in making debate preparations, Simpson College is obviously participating in a campaign activity against me."
Political debates are subject to both Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules. Tax-exempt organizations such as Simpson College are allowed to stage debates if they do not structure them to promote or advance one candidate over another. They must also use pre-established objective criteria to determine which candidates may participate in the debate. Simpson College president Jay Simmons, in email correspondence with Rick Stewart, denied involvement with any pre-established objective criteria.
"Simpson College is providing a venue for a debate organized by KCCI and The Des Moines Register. The debate organizers - KCCI-TV and The Des Moines Register - have pre-established objective criteria about which candidates to include in the debate," wrote Simmons on Friday, September 19. In a follow up email on Monday, September 22, Simmons re-stated his denial. "As I suggested in my previous note, Simpson is hosting the debates arranged by KCCI and the Des Moines Register. One of those organizations will be the correct source for the details you seek [pre-established objective criteria]."
Simpson's website, however, does not support Simmons' assertion that the college is not involved in staging the debate. A prominent article by Tessa Lengeling says, "The debate is being sponsored by Simpson, KCCI-TV in Des Moines and The Des Moines Register." It continues, "Tickets to the debate are limited, and will be distributed by the two campaigns and the three sponsors."
President Simmons appears to have backed Simpson into a corner. By emphasizing its lack of involvement with pre-established objective criteria, Simmons forfeits the college's legal right to stage a political debate. Simpson's participation in the Sunday debates, however, by hosting them, sponsoring them, printing and distributing tickets for them, and overseeing a team making debate preparations, violates IRS rules forbidding this type of campaign activity for or against political candidates.
The four candidates suggest there are a variety of remedies available. "If our opponents want to spend some of their $20 million in campaign funds to pay for the TV time, and if TV stations and newspapers want to cover it for what it is - an Infomercial - we have no problem," says Stewart. "Of course this would require finding another venue, in order not to compromise the tax-exempt status of Simpson College. Probably the most obvious solution is also the easiest - allow legally qualified candidates to participate in the debate. We know voters are eager to see all six candidates on stage - why not let democracy flourish in Iowa?"