by Max Brantley
Conversations this weekend haven't disabused me of the notion that 1) Sen. Paul Bookout would be well-served by resigning from the Arkansas Senate because 2) it might mitigate the searching look he might otherwise get from both state and federal law officers.
Bookout's own disclosure shows that he spent money from an unopposed election campaign on tens of thousands of dollars in personal expenditures — from women's clothing to a home entertainment system. No, he didn't spend taxpayer money as Gov. Mike Beebe and some others have noted. But he raised the money on the strength of his public office from people seeking favorable consideration on account of those contributions. The distinction on source of ill-spent money is little difference to me. Nor does the fact that Jesse Jackson Jr. spent MORE than Paul Bookout spent on personal items differentiate their cases.
The Arkansas statute says:
A candidate shall not take any campaign funds as personal income.
Violation of that statute is a Class A misdemeanor. There's a one-year statute of limitations on such violations, so the time has tolled on some of Bookout's expenditures in 2012, but not all of them. See this link for more detail. The Ethics Commission findings also cited other statutory failings, also punishable as misdemeanors, from failure to itemize expenditures to failure to keep adequate records to mingling campaign and private money.
Bookout has been limited in comments specifically because of the potential for the state Prosecutor Scott Ellington's review. But he also has federal tax considerations. Did he declare the campaign money spent on personal uses as income for 2012? I don't know. Paying all the money back now — without quibble over some of the smaller expenses that might well have been legitimate expenses — will mitigate that situation if he did not disclose the income. But this discovery could invite a look at past practices. Bookout's filings over the years leave a lot to be desired. For example, he reported no assets on his financial disclosure form, though his family sold a funeral home business and he and his wife, both employed, live well enough to include country club membership in their lifestyle. No assets?
Also, he's taken the legally allowed carryover of campaign funds equal to his Senate salary over the years, but has never reported how that money was spent. It may not be pocketed for personal use, either, and any expenditure of it is supposed to be reported.
It's a mess. It might not rise to the level of interest of the U.S. attorney. But the current holder of that office has a passion for investigating public corruption. He also happens to be a former Democratic representative from Jonesboro named Chris Thyer.
Sometimes circumstances like these promote a settlement in which a violator vacates public office, which — with the maximum fine already assessed and the attendant embarrassment — is sometimes viewed as sufficient.
What's been interesting is something less than a unified bloodthirsty cry by Republicans — at least by comparison with their usual — for Bookout's scalp. Asa Hutchinson, the gubernatorial nominee, has said he's inclined to think resignation would be the proper course for Bookout, but said he'd prefer to wait to see what the prosecutor says.He paid it back and entered a quickie settlement with the Ethics Commission as his girlfriend was trying to blow the whistle on him to any who would listen.
Hutchinson's self-reporting cut off a searching forensic audit of his troubled campaign account (a fight over a debt with a consultant was just one of many sidelights). His former girlfriend has contended Hutchinson knew full well from whence came the money with which he kept her in a luxury downtown condo. Their romance ended on the police blotter. She banged him about the head with a stuffed alligator head.
A random search this morning showed me, too, at least one other leading Republican Senate light who'd spent an unitemized sum of his carryover campaign money (a relatively trivial $405) on "entertainment"? Really? A legal use of carryover campaign money is "entertainment"? This senator is term-limited, so can't be said to be watering roots for a future election.
I'll say again: I'm not alibiing for Paul Bookout. His abuse of campaign money is the worst I can recall. It may be the worst ever laid out in such specifics (his defenders note that it was his full disclosure that gave us all the salacious details). He earned a maximum fine from the Ethics Commission. Absent a persuasive argument from his criminal defense attorney, however, I'm still hard-pressed to see why it is not also a misdemeanor violation under the statute.
Prosecutorial action might put a little healthy fear in the minds of other legislators tempted to play fast and loose with their surplus campaign money. But, it's been suggested, what's happened already might be caution enough. Either theory suggests a capacity for shame that some legislators, demonstrably, do not possess.