May 7, 2013

Editorial: Alan Wilson case reinforces need for random audits

There was nothing on Attorney General Alan Wilson’s campaign report to alert officials of donations he didn’t report. In fact, that was the case with all three instances we’ve seen of unreported donations — which suggests there are a lot more we aren’t catching. We need to change that.

WE HAVEN’T seen anything to suggest that Attorney General Alan Wilson deliberately withheld information from the public when he failed to list nearly $70,000 worth of donations and expenditures in his 2010 campaign to become the state’s top prosecutor.

Unlike other cases, where elected officials have gone to great lengths to hide or misrepresent donations, this case strikes us as precisely what Mr. Wilson’s campaign says it was: shoddy record keeping. And it’s to his credit that rather than simply report the donations he realized had gone unreported after being questioned by reporters, he hired an independent accountant to review nine months worth of records.

That doesn’t mean the situation isn’t disturbing. It’s deeply disturbing, particularly when you put it in context: Those 68 unreported donations represented more than 10 percent of the contributions and nearly 10 percent of the money Mr. Wilson spent in his election.

The disclosure law is the primary mechanism our state has to guard against corruption in election campaigns. The idea is that by making the names of campaign donors public, we put pressure on politicians not to accept donations that would compromise or embarrass them and that, if their donations cause conflicts later, having them out there in public will pressure officials to either recuse themselves or return the donations. Indeed, we found out about Mr. Wilson’s oversights after he said he would return donations from House Speaker Bobby Harrell, whom he has asked SLED to investigate.

In other words — and this is what’s so disturbing — our discovery of the unreported donations was entirely serendipitous. Just like we accidentally found out about unreported donations to a couple of state senators, whose motives seemed more questionable.

That’s because there’s nothing in our law to alert officials to unreported donations and expenditures as long as the total amount of money coming into a campaign matches the total amount going out.

Frankly, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that we would have accidently stumbled across the only three cases of politicians failing to report all of their donations and expenditures. What seems likely is that such misreporting is a fairly common occurrence. Some of it, we’re sure, owes to hiring incompetent campaign staff or, in the case of smaller campaigns, candidates themselves being sloppy with their record-keeping. Some of it, we are equally sure, reflects candidates deliberately deceiving the public, because they know there is practically no chance they’ll get caught.

Whichever the case, we need to correct the problem.

The only foolproof method would be to require candidates to turn in bank statements with their reports, compare the numbers on the statements to the numbers reported to ethics officials, and delve into the names as necessary. But that would be prohibitively expensive, so we ought to do the next best thing: Follow the Internal Revenue Service’s practice of conducting random audits.

That won’t ensure that we catch everyone who violates the law, but it will give those who intentionally violate it a little more incentive to obey it, and it’ll give us a better idea of how often people accidentally violate it, so we can talk about what if anything else we need to do to make sure voters are provided the information they have a right to receive to help them make informed choices.

((( EDITOR’S NOTE: Free Times reporter Corey Hutchins discovered Mr. Wilson had not reported the Harrell donation after cross-checking the two men’s campaign reports. That’s a step ethics officials do not take, but it was not serendipitous.)))

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