Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ethics Commission opens door to campaign spending abuse

Posted By on Sat, Nov 17, 2012 at 6:34 AM

CLEARED: John Burris gets away with giving campaign cash to other candidates.
  • CLEARED: John Burris gets away with giving campaign cash to other candidates.
The Arkansas Ethics Commission moved ahead yesterday with plan to close a gaping loophole I identified in the law on reporting spending on issue campaigns. It will ask the legislature to make clear the law intends for spending to be itemized on ballot issue campaigns. The practice, including in the recent campaign for a highway sales tax, has been to write checks to campaign consultants - Craig Douglass was the conduit for the highway money - and that would be the end of disclosure. How the turn-key consultants spent the money, more than $1 million on the highway tax, was their business as far as the public was concerned.

But Stephens Media reports that, while that good news developed, far worse news was happening with little notice. It reported that the Ethics Commission had decided to dismiss a complaint against Republican Rep. John Burris. The complaint alleged that he'd made personal use of campaign money by making contributions to other Republican candidates, roughly $200 each to 17 candidates. The law prohibits use of campaign money to contribute to other candidates. But ....

“Evidence gathered during the course of the investigation reflected that your attendance at the fundraising events in question furthered your own campaign by allowing you to gain access to crowds of people which included legislators, lobbyists and political activists, all of whom were potential contributors to your campaign,” Ethics Commission Director Graham Sloan said in a letter to Burris notifying him of the dismissal of the complaint.

So much is wrong about this, beginning with the fact that Burris was unopposed for election and thus did not need to raise any money for his campaign. The element of Arkansas law that allow incumbents to hang onto campaign surplus is another outrage of so-called ethics law in Arkansas.

The big thing wrong with this practice - and Republicans are by no means the only ones who engage in it - is that these "ticketed events" to raise campaign money can often be shams. They may consist of unopposed legislators meeting for lunch at Doe's with candidates who need money. They duly print up tickets for these events, which are nothing more than check-swapping parties, from one legislator to another.

The law should speak for itself. But the Ethics Commission has created an enormous exception that 1) benefits entrenched incumbents 2) allows a way for corporate interests to exceed campaign contribution limits. They give to the contested candidate. They give money to an uncontested candidate who can then launder money back to the same person on whom a contributor has maxed out.

If this new Republican majority is serious about good government, it will close this loophole. No campaign money to other candidates, period. Simple. But since Republicans across the board were the biggest abusers of this loophole in 2012, I won't hold my breath.

If you don't believe there's a personal benefit to this sham, take a look at how many times recipients of Burris money vote against his interests in 2013.

Unbelievably, with encouragement from the greedy Republican Party, the Ethics Commission also signed off on use of campaign surplus to attend national political conventions with their special interest throwdowns, travel now to be financed by special interests.

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