Ethics: Don't forget tougher penalties for lawmaker violations | Arkansas Blog

Ethics: Don't forget tougher penalties for lawmaker violations


LOTS TO REVIEW: A sample page of Bookout campaign expenses show many more of a personal nature than just those of $100 or more.
  • LOTS TO REVIEW: A sample page of Bookout campaign expenses show many more of a personal nature than just those of $100 or more.

In writing yesterday about release of the Ethics Commission investigative file on former Sen. Paul Bookout's illegal spending of campaign contributions, I mentioned discussions underway at the legislature to stiffen ethics laws.

Much work needs to be done. My continuing review of other legislators' filings continues to point up the need. Just today, I saw a term-limited, unopposed legislator, Andrea Lea, doled out 25 $200 contributions last July to fellow Republicans under the ruse that these were somehow "ticketed events" of value to her own campaign, This needs a fix. I've written before that there's a bright-letter rule that campaign contributions may not be paid to other candidates, but commission interpretation of that rule has opened a loophole big enough for a Hummer. I wrote earlier about John Burris, another unopposed, term limited Republican, who drove his own tractor-trailer of cash through the loophole. Andrea Lea is going to be running for state auditor, by the way. Feel good about her money handling? Maybe she'll have some ticketed events to raise money for that campaign, through a spit-swapping orgy of circular contributions from the usual special interests.

It's a simple fix. The law should prohibit use of campaign contributions for contributions to other candidates. If candidates want to attend a fund-raiser, let them pay their own way, like average citizens must.

But back to Paul Bookout. A special prosecutor continues to look at his use of campaign money for personal expenses, some in the form of checks signed by his wife and daughter to buy clothing at a Jonesboro woman's clothing store. He has big problems, not the least the rumor that federal investigators may also be taking a look. A prosecution on state charges wouldn't prevent federal investigators from filing their own charges on related activities, though the jurisdictions often defer on parallel cases.

Bookout would prefer a state prosecution. Why? The violations he potentially faces are only misdemeanors under state law. Of course, there could be dozens of them, one for each episode of failure to itemize expenses of $100 or more, personal expenditures and inaccurate paperwork. And here's a little-noticed fact. The Ethics Commission limited its findings on Bookout's campaign spending to the expenditures of $100 or more. There were dozens. But his campaign made dozens of other expenditures in amounts of less than $100, as the full report showed. Each of those expenditures, if the money went for personal use as they apparently did, is potentially another misdemeanor violation for the special prosecutor to consider.

The statute of limitations on misdemeanors is one year, though it might be longer for acts by a public official. There's some difference of opinion about exactly when the statute starts running. Was it when an inaccurate report was filed or was it when the expenditure occurred, for example?

I've now looked at enough campaign finance report to believe that misuse of small amounts of campaign surpluses is epidemic. See Mark Darr for starters. But also look at any number of other candidates with unitemized expenditures, sometimes in the thousands. Because expenditures of less than $100 need not be itemized, except as part of a lump sum, you can see where the temptation to charge a meal or tank of gas to a campaign is tempting. The theory, as once developed unsuccessfully by Steve Clark, is that once someone is a candidate and official, he is always a candidate and official. Everything, even an $80 shot of brandy, can be put down as an official expense. Not really. But who would ever look? The Ethics Commission's willingness to turn a blind eye to its rule against campaign contributions only encourages petty corrupt behavior.

What to do? First, if the facts merit it, hammer Paul Bookout for violating the law — particularly including some counts, if justified, for small personal expenditures, not just the ones that should have been itemized. It might tighten the sphincters of other scofflaws under the Capitol dome. He's resigned his Senate seat, lost a featherbed job to represent a local hospital from a seat in the legislature (fund-raising was his mission, which a legislator is uniquely -equipped to do with the likes of private option Medicaid expansion), been humiliated, will pay back some money to contributors, is running up big legal bills. That's a heavy price, no doubt. But a groundbreaking criminal prosecution would be a powerful example to others.

Second, the legislature needs to change the law and elevate some campaign finance violations to a felony level. A good place to start would be with personal use of campaign money. As it stands, you could raise a million, write a single check for a new house and, if caught, face nothing more than a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail, without even loss of hunting privileges. The Ethics Commission has no authority to order a refund.

UPDATE: Still more indications today that there is real movement toward some meaningful ethics work. Maybe even in a special session if — and that's a big IF, as with teachers health insurance — a consensus deal can be crafted for the governor to put on a call. The talk is at least hopeful.

PS — Yes, Democrats have abused the ticketed event rule, too. It just so happens that Republicans perfected the art in 2012.

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