Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: What’s wrong with special interests paying for legislators’ office-related expenses

WHEN Charleston’s Post and Courier first reported two years ago that Bobby Harrell had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign account to pay for trips on his personal aircraft, he brushed aside criticism by arguing that many of the trips were for travel related to his job as speaker of the House.

“While South Carolina is known for having a rough and tough political history, I never thought I’d be attacked for saving taxpayers money by using campaign funds instead of state funds to pay for official legislative expenses,” he said at the time, in classic Harrell non sequitur spin.

Flash forward to his response to his indictment last week on multiple charges of misusing his campaign funds for personal gain, in many cases to pay for personal travel on his plane, and there it is again: “I have regularly used the privately raised funds from my campaign account to pay for official state travel instead of passing that cost along to taxpayers.”

The coming criminal trial will determine whether those trips were in fact all related to “ordinary expenses incurred in connection with an individual’s duties as a holder of elective office,” as the law allows, or personal, and the law prohibits. Since what Mr. Harrell is accused of doing is nowhere near the blurry line that currently exists between what is and isn’t legal, that trial should turn on factual questions of whether he used campaign funds for a family vacation or didn’t, whether he used campaign funds to pay for trips he didn’t even take, or simply wrote down the wrong dates, whether he paid off personal credit-card bills with campaign funds, or didn’t.

But regardless of what the evidence demonstrates, his indictment should prompt our legislators to consider whether using campaign funds to pay for anything other than campaigning should be legal — and if it is to remain legal, whether it should remain so broadly defined.

Yes, it does save taxpayers money when legislators use their campaign accounts to pay for expenses related to their offices, as Mr. Harrell notes. But think about what that means: Campaign accounts are fueled primarily by special interests — people and organizations who have a vested interest in and are willing to invest their money toward having the Legislature pass the laws they want passed and not pass the laws they don’t want passed. The fact is that every penny of special-interest money a politician spends has the potential of indebting that politician to those special interests, who are more than happy to foot the bill.

This is a problem we’ve decided to live with when it comes to campaign expenditures. But is it really a problem we ought to live with when it comes to elected officials performing their official duties?

Before the 1990 federal corruption sting dubbed Operation Lost Trust, there were no restrictions on the use of campaign funds. The crimes had nothing to do with how legislators used the money they received from a sleazy lobbyist; they were perfectly within the law to use money from lobbyists to buy clothes or personal electronics or to pay for vacations with their paramours, and in fact many elected officials did just that. The crime was that there was a quid pro quo — a specific promise by legislators to take official action in return for the money.

Lost Trust grew out of too-cozy relationships between legislators and lobbyists — relationships that were fueled by lunches and dinners and nights out drinking and vacations, all paid for by those omnipresent lobbyists. The reason the Legislature made it illegal to convert campaign funds to personal use was to chill those relationships; that was also the reason it prohibited lobbyists and their employers from giving any sorts of gifts to legislators.

But while the no-cup-of-coffee rule was nearly absolute (it does allow lobbyists’ employers to entertain legislators if they invite the full House or Senate or a committee or other group defined in the law, and if they limit their spending to $50 per legislator per day), the limits on the use of campaign funds were fuzzier, and the ink hadn’t dried on the Ethics Reform Act of 1991 before legislators were making them even fuzzier.

Why yes, members of the Senate Ethics Committee said in drawing up guidelines that effectively became the law: Bulk birthday cards and even presents for certain constituents constitute “ordinary expenses incurred in connection with an individual’s duties as a holder of elective office.” Of course, they said, donations to local churches and civic clubs fit that category. Or were those considered campaign expenditures? Whatever. Tickets to the Masters certainly would be campaign expenditures, since you might run into some donors there.

There were attempts to spell out specific allowable uses for campaign funds in this year’s ethics-reform legislation, but critics argued that the proposals would have provided elected officials even more leeway to spend campaign funds on non-campaign activities. They also suspected that the goal was to give Mr. Harrell some legal cover, though I don’t think the language would have helped with the charges that were filed last week.

If Mr. Harrell is convicted, I would think that prudent legislators would want to tighten up the definition of allowable campaign expenditures, so the line between legal and illegal is clearer. They ought also to move that line in the direction of allowing less. And if he’s exonerated, then the need will be even more urgent to tighten up the law.

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

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