Last Minute Chances at Ethics Reform?

Hidden MoneyTHE CLOCK IS TICKING…

An omnibus “ethics” bill has passed the House and the Senate in different versions. That bill, which could be considered more of an income disclosure bill than a real ethics reform bill in its latest version, is currently awaiting debate in the House.

With time running out this session, the chance for reform is looking minimal. That being said, there are a number of other proposals that tackle ethical issues individually. Some would make progress, others…not so much. See for yourself in our analysis of a package of bills below.

Numerous Campaign Finance Changes (Filed 1/14/2014)

H.4452 would make several changes to campaign finance law. Under the proposed law, campaign funds could be used to pay for any reasonable and necessary expenses associated with a campaign or office. The current law specifies only travel expenses and the cost of food and beverage consumed by the candidate or immediate family at a political event are eligible for payment from campaign funds. The bill further states that any reimbursement for travel made by a campaign must be made at the IRS rate, and the payment/reimbursement of any travel, lodging, food or beverage expenses must be for the purpose of campaigning or part of an officeholder’s official responsibilities.  Another provision of the bill states that all communication and office equipment purchased with campaign funds is the sole property of the campaign. Finally, the bill requires that any payment made to campaign or office staff must be made at the time the work is provided, and that no immediate family member of a candidate is employed by his or her campaign.

There are a number of sensible reforms in this bill that would prohibit certain ways of profiting off a campaign through family, or acquiring personal property with campaign funds. On the other hand, the change of a specific clause to the phrase reasonable and necessary opens up avenues for potential abuse of campaign funds. In its current form H.4452 is something of a mixed bag.

Letting Public Officials Dodge Penalties for Wrongdoing Filed (1/14/2014)

H.4453 would allow public officials determined to have misused campaign funds to face no penalties if they reimburse the funds within 30 days’ notice from the appropriate supervisory office (in a legislator’s case, the House or Senate Ethics Committee). As the The State noted, this would be equivalent to allowing burglars to avoid charges if they simply return stolen property. Lawmakers should be just as accountable to the law as every other citizen.   

No Campaign Funds May be Expended in Cash Filed (1/14/2014)

H.4454 would allow all campaign expenditures to be made by a credit card in addition to checks, debit cards, and online transfers, which are currently allowed. The bill also prohibits campaign expenditures made in cash. The final provision of the bill removes existing language that allows campaigns the use of a less than $100 petty cash fund. H.4454 would be a positive step in campaign finance law as it would increase transparency by ensuring there are records for all campaign expenditures.

Allowing Campaign Expenses to be Paid by Various Means (Filed 1/14/2014)

H.4455 would alter the code to allow expenses paid on behalf of a candidate or committee to be made in the form of, checks authorized by the candidate or committee, debit or credit cards issued in the name of the candidate or committee, or online transfers made by the candidate or committee. This appears to be a simple attempt to keep up with payment options.

Prohibiting Cash Contributions to Campaigns Filed (1/14/2014)

H.4456 would forbid candidates from accepting cash contributions. This bill would increase transparency in campaign financing and thereby make it easier to verify candidates are following existing campaign law.

Campaign Funds may not be used for Fines and Fees Filed (1/14/2014)

H.4457 would prohibit any candidate, committee, public official, or political party from using campaign funds to pay fines, fees, or other charges imposed by an appropriate supervisory office. This is a common sense reform. Campaign funds should be clearly restricted to appropriate campaign expenses, which fines and fees are not a part of. Public officials should actually feel the punishment they receive for the legal violations rather than being able to simply absorb the costs through their often large war chests.

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