by Max Brantley
From his summary and my understanding of Ethics Commission proceedings, it would appear the Commission investigation has found probable cause to believe he violated state ethics laws by failing to itemize expenditures from his campaign fund in 2012 and by spending campaign money for personal use.
The complaint was brought by Bob Hester of Jonesboro, who smelled something fishy. Bookout, who was unopposed, nonethless raised $81,000 and spent $50,000 in unitemized expenses, including $27,000 in "entertainment." All expenses of $100 or more must be itemized. It strained belief to think Bookout had spent $50,000 in a non-campaign in such small doses.
And, according to Waylon Harris' article summarized for us last night by Durango, Bookout, through his attorney, Sen. Robert Thompson of Paragould, offered to repay $48,000. Thompson said there were 67 expenditures of $100 or more.
I've asked Thompson for an itemization of those expenditures. Sounds bad.
The rubber meets the road here for the Ethics Commission, which has the case under submission. If Bookout has flagrantly violated the campaign law in a way that converted campaign money to his own use, the punishment HAS to be sufficient to discourage similar by others.
I'd add that if the law doesn't sufficiently discourage politicians from dipping into campaign money for $50,000 in personal expenses, it's time to consider criminalizing such behavior. I would include in the list of proposed criminal sanctions the growing practice of sending campaign money to friendly politicians through the sham known as "ticketed events." This is nothing but personal use of campaign money, buying eternal friendship from colleagues.
Let's focus on Bookout for now. But I'm confident he's not the first politician to convert campaign money to non-political purposes. Our ethics commission is understaffed and reactive. If it gets no complaints, it takes no action. As long as state legislators like Bookout control the agency's budget, it's not likely to be made more powerful.
And another thing: We are long overdue in preventing carryover campaign funds for incumbent politicians. They are rarely opposed. Their surplus funds are open invitations to abusive practices. See: Paul Bookout.
And speaking still of Paul Bookout: The legislature could, but won't, look again at the issue of people getting hired, effectively, as in-house lobbyists, such as when funeral director Bookout got hired as a "government affairs" representative of a local hospital. The General Assembly is dotted with people working for trade associations and the like, their primary qualification being their voting machine key. On another day, we can talk about the in-house lawyers who score unreported fees from companies with lucrative business at the General Assembly (see Republican Senate leader Michael Lamoureux this session, to name but one).
UPDATE: Thompson said he could not comment on the case while it remained under consideration.