Cindi Ross Scoppe

March 23, 2014

Scoppe: Do legislators really need amnesty for converting campaign funds to personal use?

If we had a general provision in our criminal code like the one lawmakers want to put in the ethics law, we’d have this sort of encounter between a police officer and the person he’s handcuffing: “I’m sorry officer. I had no idea armed robbery was illegal. Here, let me just give you back the money, and we’ll call it even.”

WE COULD talk about how frightfully far a House bill was able to advance before someone noticed that it could quash the Grand Jury investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell. Or we could talk about how this oversight involved the same subcommittee that nearly snookered the House into passing a bill a year ago that would have decriminalized the entire ethics law, not just the part that prohibits converting campaign funds to personal use, as critics allege Mr. Harrell did.

But the potentially retroactive provision in the bill is being fixed, and it could have all been a big mistake, so let’s focus instead on the invitation to corruption that the reformed bill still issues, since it will be back up for debate Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee.

H.4453, one of a half-dozen bite-sized ethics bills introduced by Rep. Kirkman Finlay with the blessing of the pro-reform League of Women Voters, has been sold as allowing candidates to correct technical errors on their campaign-disclosure reports without penalty. What it says is that candidates who reimburse their campaigns within 30 days after ethics officials point out violations will not face any punishment.

That “reimbursement” language should be your first clue that this has nothing to do with “technical” errors, nearly all of which would be cured without any cash changing hands.

The second clue is that the bill doesn’t say anything about technical errors.

The third clue, which you’d have to read the three-paragraph bill to notice, is that it doesn’t even deal with the sections of the ethics law that would produce “technical violations,” such as listing the wrong date or amount of a donation, or accepting cash donations of more than $25, or failing to report some donations.

Instead, it adds the amnesty language to the section that concerns campaign expenditures — specifically, prohibiting petty cash funds of more than $100, cash expenditures of more than $25 and payments “clearly in excess of the fair market value” for products and services.

Oh, and converting campaign funds to personal use.

Get caught doing any of that, reimburse your campaign account for the illegal expenditure, and all is forgiven.

If we had a general provision like that in our criminal code, we’d have this sort of encounter between a police officer and the person he’s handcuffing: “I’m sorry officer. I had no idea armed robbery was illegal. Here, let me just give you back the money, and we’ll call it even.”

Moreover, the bill as written and as approved by the House Constitutional Laws Subcommittee did not contain the language that is routinely included in changes to the criminal code to make clear that they do not apply to pending cases. Thus the very real possibility — not a guarantee, mind you; it would depend on a judge’s interpretation — that it could be used to shut down the Harrell probe.

After the attorney general’s office spotted the problem during Tuesday’s Judiciary Committee meeting, the panel agreed to send the bill back to subcommittee, and on Thursday the subcommittee added that standard savings language. It also capped those armed robberies at $5,000 and limited candidates to one get-out-of-jail-free card.

And all of that is good. But the bill still invites people who now are afraid to violate the law to start paying cash for expenditures of up to $5,000, making them untraceable, and spending their campaign donations on large-screen TVs and sex toys and flying themselves on vacation. And why not? If they get caught, all they have to do is pay the money back, and all is forgiven. Because, you know, they didn’t realize that armed robbery was illegal.

Mr. Finlay told me on Thursday that his intent with his other five bills was to pass simple reforms that most people can accept, since it’s not clear that the Legislature will pass the omnibus bill that has been stalled on the House calendar for three weeks now. Among them are bills to ban all cash contributions and expenditures and prohibit candidates from paying ethics fines with campaign funds. His goal with the amnesty bill is to end the gotcha approach to ethics enforcement that many legislators fear, thus making it easier to pass bigger reforms.

The League’s Lynn Teague told me that while she isn’t crazy about that bill, she does see a need to make room for regulators to focus on major violations. Not that I’ve ever noticed them paying much attention to the minor ones.

Mr. Finlay said he never intended to help out anyone who is under investigation and had no idea his bill could do that — and I tend to believe him. He noted that he is not a lawyer and that he worked with the League and the committee attorneys to draft the bill, and reminded me that it initially was approved by the subcommittee. Which doesn’t boost my confidence in the subcommittee that handles some of the most important and complex bills that go through the Legislature — and that wrote that decriminalize-the-ethics-law bill last year that didn’t get noticed until it was sent to the House floor.

If Mr. Finlay’s bill did what he has sold it as doing, and what lots of people thought it did, it probably would be a smart change.

If it wanted to, the full Judiciary Committee could amend the bill on Tuesday to grant one-time amnesty to people who make technical mistakes.

And it should.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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