The need for ethics reform — Meet Legislator X | Arkansas Blog

The need for ethics reform — Meet Legislator X

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LEGISLATOR X: Read about him/her and decide if the Ethics Commission should want to know more.
  • LEGISLATOR X: Read about him/her and decide if the Ethics Commission should want to know more.
The Paul Bookout case, as I've written this week, doesn't end with Paul Bookout. It points out the need for still stronger ethics laws and more effective enforcement.

Bookout spent campaign money for personal uses. That was already prohibited by law. But he and every other member of the legislature knows that the Ethics Commission not only doesn't routinely review campaign filings, it reviews them only in response to direct complaints, which must be signed and notarized. The reports are confusing and lack detail. Public officials do a poor job of filing them. Particularly subject to abuse is the spending of campaign carryover. Each expenditure is supposed to be reported. That money also may not be spent freely. But it is spent freely and not always reported.

Here's what the rules say about use of campaign money:

* A candidate shall not take campaign funds as personal income.

* Campaign funds which are retained as “carryover funds,” are treated as campaign funds and may not be taken as personal income.

* ... a candidate who uses campaign funds to fulfill any commitment, obligation or expense that would exist regardless of the candidate’s campaign and an officeholder who uses campaign funds (retained as carryover funds) to fulfill any commitment, obligation or expense that would exist regardless of the duties and responsibilities of his or her office shall be deemed to have taken campaign funds as personal income.

* If an expense is the result of campaign or officeholder activity, then it is not considered personal use and not prohibited by those sections and subsections herein limiting the personal use of campaign funds or carryover funds.

* Generally, campaign funds may not be used to make a contribution to another candidate’s campaign. Contributions are construed as a personal matter and transferring a contribution from one campaign to another person’s campaign is considered a “personal use” of the funds. However, this general rule is a rebuttable presumption. There could be times and circumstances when a candidate may attend a fund raiser for another candidate and the purpose of attending would be to further the candidate’s own campaign. Therefore, buying a ticket to the fund raiser would be permitted. Factual circumstances thus may justify a departure from the general rule that making a campaign contribution constitutes a personal use of funds. .. the Commission will review the facts of each such situation separately with the rebuttable presumption that such use is prohibited as a personal use of campaign funds.

Now that you know the rules, let us review the recent records of a current member of the Arkansas legislature, Legislator X. I'll not name him or her or party affiliation. Let's not be blinded by partisanship or personal feelings.

The candidate filed for office in 2012. The candidate was unopposed, both in the primary and the general election. The candidate is term limited and so has no future campaigns.

The candidate raised $21,000 in the primary campaign and another $22,000 for the general election campaign, or about $43,000 altogether. (Today, we won't even consider why an unopposed candidate needs to raise money for a general election campaign except to fatten his or her carryover account.)

And how did the candidate spend this money? Very interesting.

Itemized reimbursements included four payments totaling $1,110 to him/herself in October 2012 and December 2012. For what? The reports don't say. The rules indicate more detail should be provided. It is also curious that someone would have personal campaign expenses to report in December, though it's ethically relevant. No expenses are allowed after an election except thankyou advertising and distribution of surplus according to law. Retention of money equal to a public official's pay, about $15,000 in this case, also is allowed.

But that's not the main event in this case.

A significant portion of this candidate's itemized expenditures were reported categorically as "advertising." And what form did that advertising take?

Itemized breakdowns show that the "advertising" was purchase of "tickets" to campaign fund-raisers for other political candidates. Four payments adding up to $700 went to a PAC and three candidates in the July report (after the candidate was already the unopposed nominee for re-election); $2,700 went to 15 candidates in the August report (mostly for "tickets" on the same day in July); $1,355 went to two political organizations in September; $100 went to a judicial candidate, according to the October report; $800 in tickets for four candidates were reported on the December 2012 report. Recipients included a county political committee, which nominally is prohibited from receiving a candidate's campaign money.

So there you have it. Records on file with the secretary of state show an unopposed candidate reported that he or she had spent more than $5,600 on putative advertising in the form of "tickets" — campaign contributions — to other candidates. These fund-raisers likely took the form of so-called "ticketed events." They are not really fund-raisers, but gatherings of legislators, complete with printed tickets, meant to provide a ruse for sidestepping the otherwise clear prohibition against use of campaign money for contributions to the campaigns of others. The Ethics Commission has never flatly approved this tactic (except in an advisory opinion once for a debt retirement event for former gubernatorial candidate Jimmie Lou Fisher), but it has given some allowance to the argument that a current candidate's attendance at the fund-raiser of another candidate could enhance his or her ability to raise money and meet people. A gathering of legislators for a check swap? No, nobody has ever approved that.

This record of "ticket" purchases in the name of "advertising" by an unopposed candidate, including after the election, cries out for a review as the state Ethics Commission rules provide. I'd hope that the leaders of both the Arkansas Democratic Party and the Arkansas Republican Party would agree, regardless of the identity of Legislator X. I'd rather, really, that they and some ethical members of the legislature — should Diogenes ever find one besides Duncan Baird, David Johnson and a handful of others — decide that it is time to end the charade.

End carryover money. End use of campaign money for any but campaign purposes. Allow no spending after election is decided (meaning after a primary and the write-in deadline for the general election if a candidate has no opposition.) Make it clear as clear can be that campaign contributions can't be funneled by any scheme to another candidate. In other words, end ticketed events.

Ethics. Who's for them? Will Bond? Doyle Webb?

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