Campaign Spending Still Too Loose
It's relatively recent history, but some of our state legislators need a lesson in it nonetheless. In 2003, Forsyth County legislator Michael Decker tapped his campaign fund to fly to Florida, buy a van and drive back to North Carolina. Decker also wrote checks from his campaign account to pay hotel bills while in Raleigh, despite receiving $104 a day from taxpayers for the expense.
Decker's campaign fund was made flush thanks to some kind words from then-House Speaker Jim Black, who kept his powerful position due to Decker's temporary party switch from Republican to Democrat.
Both men eventually went to prison for other unsavory transactions.
At the time, converting campaign cash to personal use wasn't illegal as long as it was reported.
Illegal or not, Raleigh reporters dug though campaign finance reports to discover other legislators who had bought cars with dollars intended to help them win political office.
Legislators responded to the bad press by passing a law in 2006 to make the practice illegal.
Then-Senate leader Marc Basnight had a little heartburn, though. For years, Basnight had been spending campaign dollars on birthday cakes and funeral flowers for fellow legislators.
So he had a loophole carved out in the bill allowing expenses that result "from holding public office."
Basnight may never have envisioned that loophole turning into a gaping chasm, only a few years removed from the worst corruption scandal in the history of the North Carolina General Assembly.
Recently, state Rep. Justin Burr, a Stanly County Republican, has taken some public hits for using his campaign cash to buy Brooks Brothers suits, pay his Raleigh rent and purchase furniture for his legislative office. Burr's expenses came to public notice after a Raleigh political activist filed a complaint.
A legal opinion from state elections officials indicates that the spending may fall within the definition of office-holding expenses. It calls on elected officials to ask a simple question: Would you have otherwise spent this money if you were not a public office-holder? If the answer is no, the spending is OK.
It seems a pretty subjective standard.
Perhaps, as an office-holder, I believe that a Rolls-Royce will impress more voters than a Volkswagen. If I wasn't concerned about impressing constituents, I'd never buy a Rolls-Royce. Therefore, I've justified my new Rolls as a campaign expense.
And what happens to this swag once an office-holder quits or is defeated? Will Burr be giving those suits and office furniture to charity at that point?
In fairness to Burr, a quick perusal of campaign finance reports shows that other legislators are becoming a bit loose with their campaign spending too. Democrats and Republicans are spending campaign cash on Raleigh rent. House Speaker Thom Tillis used $70 in campaign money for membership in the National Rifle Association.
So maybe that 2006 law had no point. After all, who cares if legislators take money from individuals, pass legislation wanted by those individuals and then spend that money on themselves?
It's not a crime, is it?
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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