ASK POLITICIANS about corruption, and you’ll get two very different kinds of answers. The biggest threat, some will tell you, is elected officials enriching themselves off of do-nothing jobs or lucrative contracts with government agencies. Others worry about special interests buying politicians’ support with make-work or inflated-cost contracts.
Both are real dangers, and we need laws to make it less likely that either will occur, and easier to spot them when they do, but hold that thought. First, I want to talk about how those competing visions of corrupting influences — the first more prevalent on the right, the second more prevalent on the left — can influence politicians’ behavior.
Let’s start with former House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
Mr. Harrell’s first defense, when his hand got stuck inside his campaign cookie jar, was to spin crime as virtue. And what better way for a conservative to do that than by emphasizing that he wasn’t getting any money from the government?
When he took hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to pay for flights on his personal aircraft, he insisted, he wasn’t converting campaign funds to personal use; he was saving the taxpayers’ money. “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 sputtered, and continued sputtering until we found out that many of those “official legislative expenses” were not legitimate expenses at all — and in fact some were never even incurred.
You might just as easily imagine a Democrat accused of a sweetheart deal with a state agency crowing about how he had virtuously avoided entangling alliances with corrupting corporations.
I thought of this dichotomy as I was struggling to come up with an legitimate explanation for what Sen. John Courson was doing when, according to a criminal indictment, he paid Richard Quinn and Associates $250,000 from his campaign account and then received $130,000 back from the company.
Before we go any further, I need to make it clear that I have no inside knowledge about this arrangement. All I know is that Mr. Courson has told more than one person that he was being reimbursed for expenses incurred as a senator.
It is perfectly legal for legislators to use campaign funds to reimburse themselves for a wide range of expenses — what Mr. Harrell did would have been fine if those had been legitimate legislative expenses. But if it’s a legal reimbursement, why in the world would it go through a third party?
Why indeed — unless you believe there is a political risk to accepting legitimate reimbursements from either the state or your campaign donors.
Imagine you’re a Republican who represents more Democratic voters than any other senator. On the one hand, you have lots of constituents who you believe would be offended if you took advantage of the evil, corrupting government by accepting expense reimbursements. On the other hand, you have lots of constituents who you believe would be offended if you accepted reimbursement from the evil, corrupting special interests. Might you be tempted to overpay your political consultant so he could write you a check for reimbursements that the law allows you to take but the political situation prevents?
I hope this isn’t what Mr. Courson did, because it would not be legal. The deal we struck with the ethics law was that politicians could accept donations from people who are trying to influence them, that they could even use some of that money to pay for certain expenses — as long as they told us where the money came from and how they spent it. An arrangement that hides some of those transactions violates that deal, and the law.
So, back to that thought you’ve been holding since the second paragraph: how to reduce the potential for corruption involving either the government or the private sector.
The first step is the disinfectant of disclosure — far more than we currently require. We require Sen. X to tell us about the checks he receives directly from the government and businesses and other special interests. But when Rep. Y receives a salary from his law firm or consulting company, we also need him to tell us about the checks that business receives from government or special interests, and it’s not clear that the law requires this.
We probably need to know about subcontracts as well, although we need to figure out how to capture enough information without being ridiculous. After all, money is sort of like ancestry: Go back far enough, and we all get to Charlemagne.
The other thing we need to do is limit how politicians can use their campaign accounts. As the Harrell case made all too clear — and the Courson case could end up reminding us — there are far too many temptations to cross over the fuzzy gray line that lets elected officials tap those accounts for any sort of undefined “expenses of office.”
It’s time to limit campaign donations to campaign expenditures.
Elected officials who are not willing to accept reimbursements for official expenses from their employer (that would be us, the taxpayers) just need to suck it up and cover those expenses themselves.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.