Times-Picayune, New Orleans, on state reining in the way political contributions are spent
Times-Picayune, New Orleans, on state reining in the way political contributions are spent:
Senate President John Alario, who hasn’t had opposition since 2007, spent more than $857,000 in political contributions in the past five years — including tens of thousands of dollars on a suite at Tiger Stadium and other tickets, pricey meals and a leased BMW.
Sen. Alario, at least, is still in office. His buddy Francis Heitmeier, who left the Senate in 2007 and hasn’t run for office since, spent more than $418,000 in leftover campaign donations between 2009 and 2013.
Like Sen. Alario, there are extravagances on the list, including his share for the suite at Tiger Stadium. Their corporation — SNDV LLC — stands for Saturday Night in Death Valley, according to a person familiar with it.
These guys are living the good life.
Candidates and elected officials in Louisiana aren’t supposed to use campaign money for personal expenses. But Louisiana’s laws are lax and poorly enforced, so politicians frequently label expenses as campaign-related without providing specific details or verification and without revealing who benefited from the perks.
That must change.
A months-long investigation by NOLA.com ‘ The Times-Picayune and WVUE Fox 8 News has detailed millions of dollars spent in recent years by campaigns across the state on suites at the Superdome, tickets to sporting and other events, meals at upscale restaurants, jewelry, country club fees and wedding presents, among other questionable expenses.
Sen. Alario and Heitmeier, who both control political action committees, are the current kings of this realm. And they seem intent on keeping details about their spending to themselves.
They have so far refused to comment on their spending on these items for the “Loui-siana Purchased” reports by the news organizations. Nor have they offered any addi-tional details publicly to justify their spending. That raises an obvious question: What are they concealing?
They did ease up on their spending in late 2013, after the first installments of “Lou-isiana Purchased” appeared in the newspaper, on air and online. So perhaps they are not oblivious to the questions raised by such free-spending ways.
But both should provide the public more explanation of how so much money can be spent when neither is currently running for office — and how, for example, a suite at Tiger Stadium serves constituents.
Campaign contributions are private money — but it is dangerous to tacitly allow them to be used for personal expenses. That essentially gives a politician a slush fund and could allow donors to curry favor by funding luxuries.
“Candidates or office holders should not use money donated to a campaign for self-enrichment or to give themselves personal gifts,” the Public Affairs Research Council said in a commentary Friday. “Such transactions are, in principle, not very different from the unlawful act of buying political influence with a valuable gift.”
There are other questions raised by lax oversight of campaign accounts.
Those contributions are not taxed. So if they are used on personal expenses, what are the tax implications? Would the Internal Revenue Service then view the money as in-come?
Rhode Island’s prohibition against personal use of campaign donations directly links it to the IRS’ definition of gross income. The Rhode Island law also specifically forbids a long list of items, including country club or health club dues. It also prohibits candidates from paying campaign finance fines with contributions, which Louisiana allows.
Rhode Island has had its share of public corruption scandals, including a federal investigation into influence peddling at the Statehouse dubbed Operation Dollar Bill. But its campaign finance law at least attempts to keep public officials from profiting off contributors.
Louisiana law, on the other hand, says that campaign funds can be spent for “any lawful purpose.” The money can’t be used for personal uses “unrelated to a political campaign, the holding of a public office or party position.”
That language is so vague as to be meaningless. Intentionally so, no doubt.
“The standard has, to an unacceptable degree, left questions of proper use up to the individual candidate or office holder,” PAR said. Hence, campaign money is going to buy wedding gifts and pay dues at private clubs.
Louisiana should have a higher standard with “better definitions of the do’s and don’ts in campaign finance spending,” PAR argued. Elsewhere, governments allow campaign funds to be spent only on “ordinary and necessary expenses” and forbid using them for everyday expenses that would exist outside a campaign or public office.
PAR also argued for lawmakers to provide a list of what is specifically prohibited, as Rhode Island has. In addition, candidates should be required to include detailed information on how an expense is connected to a campaign or public office.
All of these are rational and reasonable suggestions. The Legislature, unfortunately, is taking only tepid steps toward reform.
Only one bill filed as the session began last week would restrict campaign spending. House Bill 265, by Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco, would forbid campaigns from buying vehicles and other property with donations. He isn’t suggesting a prohibition on leasing cars, though. So Sen. Alario presumably could continue to drive that BMW.