Increased Penalties for Multiple Ethics Offenses
H.3185 is an attempt to strengthen the penalties for various ethics violations. Under the proposed law, both offering a bribe to a public official or witness in order to influence testimony, and soliciting a bribe by a public official or witness would be felonies punishable by up to ten years’ imprisonment, a $10,000 fine, and a permanent disqualification from serving as a public official. The bill would also make misuse of campaign a misdemeanor if the amount is less than $2,000 and a felony if the amount of campaign funds used exceeds $2,000. While this represents an increased penalty for misuse of funds, the bill fails to alter current law that allows officeholders to use their campaign funds on expenses related to their office – a loophole that has been stretched by politicians to allow use of campaign funds for all kinds of questionable expenses. Penalties for additional crimes – like unlawful nepotism – would also be increased under this bill.
While these are positive reforms, they will almost certainly make no difference without concurrent reforms. Increased penalties for misuse of campaign funds will become far more meaningful when misuse of campaign funds is more narrowly defined so as to prohibit the use of campaign funds on “official duties” of a public office. Likewise, many of these other penalties will be difficult to enforce without the information provided by income disclosure laws mandating that public officials disclose all sources of income.