Scoppe: When bribery becomes an ‘ordinary expense’

Associate EditorOctober 13, 2013 

Cindi Ross Scoppe

— IT’S FAIRLY routine, in business and in government, to reimburse people for spending their own money on business-related expenses.

So, for instance, when you drive to an out-of-town meeting, you get reimbursed.

But you don’t get reimbursed for the cost of the DUI you get driving home. Or for hiring someone to hack into a competitor’s computer network and sabotage it. Those are crimes, and unless you work for a criminal organization, it’s understood that you are reimbursed only for spending money on things that are legal and ethical.

So there’s nothing wrong with the Senate Ethics Committee’s rule of thumb that senators can spend campaign money on any expense they wouldn’t incur if they weren’t senators. What’s wrong is what the panel has decided that includes. As The State’s Adam Beam reported last Sunday, it considers “ordinary expenditures” for senators to include purchasing gifts for whomever they see fit and making donations to whatever organizations they choose.

If something sounds not quite right about that, it is this: This rule is built on the assumption that buying gifts for voters and making donations to popular organizations is a necessary part of being a senator. And at the risk of offending our senators’ sensibilities by putting too fine a point on it: What is expected means what is expected of senators who hope to be re-elected.

Buying gifts for voters and making donations to popular organizations — in order to be re-elected.

How exactly is that different from vote-buying? From bribery?

It might not meet our state’s legal definition of bribery, which is really convoluted but is generally believed to require a direct quid pro quo. But it meets the dictionary definition of a bribe: “money or favor given or promised in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust” and “something that serves to induce or influence.”

That is what the Senate Ethics Committee says it’s perfectly fine for senators to spend campaign money on.

The panel’s interpretation is based on an exception to our state’s prohibition on using campaign funds “to defray personal expenses which are unrelated to the campaign or the office if the candidate is an officeholder.” The law specifically allows “an expenditure used to defray any ordinary expenses incurred in connection with an individual’s duties as a holder of elective office.”

That law leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But not as much as the Senate Ethics Committee has taken. The panel has interpreted it to mean something that no objective outsider would imagine.

The problem is that an interpretation was written by a bunch of senators who got together behind closed doors and started brainstorming what constituted ordinary expenses of holding office, and each one in turn came up with something he did that pushed the envelope a little more, and soon enough, someone started talking about how he always had given certain constituents baskets of fruit at Christmas, and someone else allowed as to how he writes checks to certain churches in his district, and before you knew it, the committee had decided that “what may be an ‘ordinary expense’ in one district or area of the state may not be viewed as an ‘ordinary expense’ in another.”

Because, apparently, bribery is expected and accepted in some districts but not in others.

We should be thankful, I suppose, for small favors.

Most current senators weren’t even in office when this interpretation was written, in 1993. But as they joined the Senate, they found that this was the way business was done by their predecessors, and this is the way business is done by at least some of their colleagues, and they haven’t challenged it.

It’s reminiscent of the way legislators found that letting lobbyists pay for dinner and drinks and weekend getaways and week-long vacations was the way business was done, and so they too became corrupted by business as usual. Until the feds busted them. And those who didn’t get busted wrote a new ethics law to outlaw such corrupt practices. And then the Senate Ethics Committee “interpreted” the teeth out of part of that law.

Senators love to cite the resignation of Sen. Robert Ford in the face of an imminent expulsion recommendation by their Ethics Committee and the fines the panel issued against Sen. Kent Williams and then-Sen. Jake Knotts and argue that there is no need for independent enforcement of the ethics law because their ethics committee has done such a fine job of self-policing.

That argument always rang hollow, because it ignores the fact that the House Ethics Committee has not done a fine job of self-policing, and the only way to turn enforcement of House members’ ethics compliance over to an independent body is in tandem with senators’.

But this “bribery as an ordinary expense of office” rule — which the House Ethics Committee and the State Ethics Commission reject — puts the lie to that claim. What the Senate Ethics Committee allows may very well be worse than what the House panel ignores.

Calling a bribe an ordinary expense of holding office is an indictment of our political system, at least as practiced by state senators.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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