Columns » Max Brantley

Ethics lessons from Huckabee

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The state Ethics Commission and its staff deserve praise for last week's handling of an investigation of Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee's campaign finances.

In a unanimous bipartisan vote, the Commission scolded Huckabee for abysmal bookkeeping and excessive post-election spending. In essence, he used the pretext of retiring a $17,000 campaign debt to justify a $100,000 political operation.

The Commission stopped short of sanctions because Huckabee himself had asked for the review, albeit in response to media pressure.

The finding sends a message that the ethics law, if unspecific, is not vague. It means what it says when it allows spending after an election "solely" to retire campaign debt--not to pay permanent staff with duties unrelated to fund-raising and to make general political appearances. Certainly not during a legislative session, when fund-raising is prohibited by law. Other valuable lessons:

• Campaign reporting forms need to be changed. There's no place to report campaign expenses that have been incurred, but not paid. This helped create the confusion about Huckabee's actual 1994 campaign debt.

• The commission and the legislature should emulate other states and eliminate all post-election fund-raising. A couple of reasons: 1) Only winners have much luck raising money after a campaign. That's when campaign contributions take on the appearance of a quid in search of a quo. 2) Any smart candidate will be sure to finish in debt so as to justify on-going political operations. We should also prohibit candidates who finish campaigns in the black to keep surpluses for themselves.

• The law should limit travel reimbursements to actual expenses. Huckabee charged his campaign for 30 cents a mile for his wife's driving trips. That's far more than actual vehicle costs, a hidden salary in effect.

• If post-election fund-raising is to continue, the law may need more definition about what constitutes a legitimate campaign expense so as to discourage searches for loopholes.

• Payments to credit card companies are not adequate disclosures of campaign expenses. As the Commission investigation showed, Huckabee's credit card payments were not supported by credit card receipts. He contends the payments went to legitimate travel expenses in any case, but his sloppy bookkeeping illustrated the potential abuses in loosey-goosey credit card billing. The law already requires disclosure of specific expenses of $100 or more. It should be enforced.

Huckabee argues that he did taxpayers a favor by charging his campaign, rather than his public office, for trips to coon suppers and tomato festivals and the like. That's poor justification for breaking the campaign finance law, intentionally or not. There is no law that says Huckabee can't pay for out-of-season politicking from his own pocket.

Print headline: "Ethics Lesson From Huckabee" February 9, 1996

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