The state Ethics Commission handed down historic fines last week for campaign finance violations by Democratic Sen. Paul Bookout of Jonesboro.
The Commission fined Bookout $2,000, the maximum, for four violations of the law: 1) spending campaign money for personal use; 2) failing to keep adequate expenditure records; 3) commingling campaign and personal money, and 4) failing to itemize expenditures of campaign money of more than $100.
Bookout, who was unopposed in 2012, raised $80,000 in campaign money and acknowledged in amended campaign filings that some $53,000 was spent for his own benefit — including direct cash payments, clothing, booze, meals, golf pro shop purchases and an $8,000 home entertainment system.
Bookout issued a prepared statement accepting the commission's finding, but vowed to complete his final term in the Senate.
The State Police and a special prosecutor will review the file to see whether criminal charges are merited. The laws Bookout was found to have violated can also be prosecuted as misdemeanors, with maximum punishment reaching a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
The standard of proof is higher in a criminal case. And the misdemeanor statute of limitations of one year has already run on some of the expenditures, if not on the filing discrepancies. Tax issues also loom.
It's a mess long in the making. In 2010, when he was preparing to become Senate president pro tempore, Bookout raised $106,350 and, though unopposed, spent the money up, again without itemizing most of the expenditures. He claimed, for example, that he gave $25,000 to nonprofits without listing the payments. He also spent tens of thousands in entertainment and travel expenses, the big category that led Bobby Hester, a conservative political activist in Jonesboro, to complain about Bookout's 2012 report. Bookout's reporting on expenditures of his carryover campaign money also seems incomplete.
I've yet to find a theory for how Bookout's actions differ (except in shopping list) from the personal use of federal campaign money that recently sent Jesse Jackson Jr. to prison.
Bookout should resign from office. He probably will. It's possible he's reserving resignation as a bargaining chip with prosecutors.
Bookout is not alone. Sloppy, incomplete and suspicious campaign finance reporting is old news at the Arkansas legislature.
The legislature created its own temptation. There's no reason to allow winning candidates to keep a carryover fund equal to their salary except as an incumbent enrichment plan. That money is supposed to be used for official purposes only, but it has been abused. In 2012, Republicans perfected the art of transferring campaign money from the unopposed to candidates in tough races. They dreamed up a cover — sham "ticketed events" — but even mishandled the scam and were found in violation of campaign finance laws. And several THEN used campaign money to pay their fines. If that's not a personal use of campaign money I don't know what is.
The legislature should (but won't):
1) End carryover funds for incumbents. 2) End use of campaign money for anything but campaign expenses. No entertainment, except for specific fund-raising events. 3) Specifically prohibit use of campaign money for contributions to other candidates. 4) Give the Ethics Commission more investigators and more power. The tiny agency responds primarily to signed, notarized complaints. It should routinely review campaign finance reports for obvious discrepancies and the staff should be allowed to act unilaterally.
Finally, yes, prosecutions would help. Convictions would provide the basis for removal from office under the clear dictates of the Constitution.
When you can spend $53,000 on yourself and the maximum civil penalty is $8,000 in fines (Bookout's planned reimbursements are voluntary), the incentive to cheat is powerful if a legislator knows no one has ever been prosecuted.