Columns » Max Brantley

What's Huckabee got to hide?

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No law guarantees ethics in government, but financial disclosure laws help, the more detailed the better.

But you couldn't prove it by the Arkansas Ethics Commission's action last week on Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee's extraordinary fund-raising efforts in the 10 months following his election as lieutenant governor.

Huckabee finished his campaign about $11,000 in debt by the latest count. Since then, he has raised and spent about $130,000--he says to retire that debt. A charity that spent 90 percent of its take on overhead would be called, at best, woefully inefficient. A scam is more like it.

The Ethics Commission refused to ask for an accounting and thereby provided a blank check to future political candidates who want to evade financial disclosure laws.

Huckabee reports his spending, but only in broad general categories. For the most part, we have only his word that they are legitimate campaign expenses.

From Huckabee's own mouth we know some of the expenses are, at best, questionable. He employed a full-time staff long after the election (its duties include maintaining his speaking schedule) and he even admitted that he paid for a senatorial exploratory trip to Washington with lieutenant governor campaign money. Even more problematic are his reimbursements for thousands of dollars in unitemized expenses.

Such exorbitant expenditures hardly seem necessary simply to retire $11,000 in debt. After all, the state's biggest lobbyists shelled out $25,000 to attend lunch with Huckabee last spring. A bit later, the soft drink lobby contributed $20,000 or so at a Capital Hotel reception put on at no apparent cost to Huckabee.

Don't bother the Ethics Commission with such details. Apologizing for Huckabee, it said the law isn't clear about what constitutes a reasonable campaign expense. Silly you for thinking it might be the commission's place to clear up such ambiguities.

Huckabee is a powerful politician and the Commission was clearly spooked by his whining (without supporting evidence) that he was being victimized by political opponents. But the only overt partisanship on display came from Huckabee's side. Huckabee's appointee to the commission, Rita Looney, and Commissioner Candi Russell, a former Huckabee campaign worker, were vocal in the commission's rush to whitewash.

Except for the occasional slap at the trivial and obviously inept, this so-called Ethics Commission has demonstrated more concern with empire building than good government. The reason is simple: Vigorous enforcement angers those who control the purse for their salaries, rent, junkets, etc.

The matter need not be complicated or unfair. A commission audit of both the Democratic and Republican campaigns for lieutenant governor in 1994 could provide valuable guidance on allowable expenses and proper reporting procedures.

The Democrat, Charlie Cole Chaffin, says she has a box full of receipts to show to anyone who wants to see them. It tells you plenty that Mike Huckabee won't make the same offer.

Print headline: "What's Huckabee got to hide?" November 10, 1995.

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