House to plug ethics loophole?
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By JIM WALLS
Feb. 19, 2013 — A previously unnoticed loophole could allow Georgia politicians to reimburse themselves thousands of dollars from campaign funds without explaining how they spent the money.
A key legislator shepherding House Speaker David Ralston’s ethics bills says the problem will be fixed. Details of the proposed solution, however, were not immediately clear.
One of Ralston’s proposals would restore rule-making power to the state ethics commission. Other language in the bill, though, would tweak current law that prevents the commission from requiring candidates or lobbyists to report more information on disclosure filings than the law specifically requires.
The commission, before the Legislature stripped its rule-making authority in 2009, adopted two rules that did just that:
- Since 2000, the commission has required that campaigns that reimburse candidates (or anyone else) for expenses must identify the purpose, the end recipients of the funds and the amounts they were paid.
- Since 2009, candidates have had to disclose the departure and destination points, as well as the fair market value, for air travel. The value of some donated air travel had been low-balled previously, allowing donors to give more before reaching contribution limits.
The reimbursement rule, based on my review of dozens of state legislators’ disclosures over the last year, is violated as often as not. Many candidates report all the required information for each reimbursement; others simply disclose a lump sum with no detail at all. Some lawmakers, I have found, have collected as much as $25,000 in campaign reimbursements over the years without saying what they had spent it on.
There’s no reason to assume that legislators are ignoring the disclosure requirement. The rule — buried on the commission’s website — is not evident when a candidate uses the commission’s online filing system. The commission’s training for candidates, I’m told, does not cover the matter.
But ignorance of the law (or rule, as it were) is no excuse, and a failure to enforce it leaves the system wide open to abuse.
State law generally limits campaign spending to political purposes or the costs of fulfilling the office they were elected to, such as office supplies and equipment, lodging and transportation. Using campaign money for personal expenses is a no-no.
Disclosure of direct payments allows state overseers and the public to scrutinize whether campaign spending was appropriate. But unspecified reimbursements offers a loophole — if not wide enough to drive a Mack truck though — that’s large enough to cart a flat-screen TV through. Or tickets to Vegas. Or a fully-stocked wet bar.
Without having to disclose more information, candidates could use political contributions any way they wanted by simply buying something with personal funds and getting reimbursed by the campaign. Not exactly transparent.
Rep. Rich Golick, chairman of a House subcommittee that’s been working on Ralston’s bills, told me Friday that he wasn’t aware of the ramifications concerning campaign reimbursements.
Over the weekend, Golick emailed me to say he had found that my interpretation was correct and the problem would be fixed when the House Rules Committee next considers the ethics bill — possibly this week. “Thanks for catching it and making us aware,” he wrote.
Golick didn’t say how that would be done and did not immediately respond to my follow-up inquiry.
One way would be to drop the language in question from the bill. But the Legislature, as part of an earlier ethics bill, already enacted a similar restriction that took effect in 2011:
The commission shall not require the reporting of any more information in a campaign contribution disclosure report than is expressly required to be disclosed by this Code section.
Another possibility would be to eliminate the restrictive language from the law and to replace it with the commission’s rules on disclosures, requiring full disclosure on both reimbursements and air travel. Lawmakers could also require that campaign finance reports — like expense reports in most U.S. businesses — be kicked back until the filer provides all the necessary info.
That option would no longer leave any doubt about how candidates must account for campaign funds.
FOOTNOTE: I’ve found a number of instances where legislators have charged their campaigns and their House or Senate expense accounts for the same item — double-dipping, even if inadvertent. I’ve reported on a few such instances here and here. Allowing campaign reimbursements without disclosure of the details would make that research more difficult. I’m just sayin’.