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Excluding profiteering from campaigning needed reform

The ready-made legacy or campaign issue of campaign finance spending reform remains available, with the matter up for discussion of candidates using campaign funds in enriching relatives – or even indirectly themselves – for providing campaign services.

While they provided unhelpful analysis regarding raising campaign funds, the media series of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and WVUE-TV highlighted some spending practices permitted for these funds that are ripe for change. They now add to that the consequences of lax regulations regarding elected officials’ family members and their own abilities to have campaign donations as compensation for activities performed in the course of campaigning.

R.S.18:1505.2 serves to define how expenditures are controlled to “immediate family members,” defined as typically in the larger ethics code as parents, siblings, children, their spouses, and parents of a spouse. These are prohibited directly, but may be made to entities where the member has “any” ownership interest. Here, anything goes as long as what is provided qualifies as a campaign expenditure, it is of fair value, and the business involved has been registered with the secretary of state for a year or has the appropriate license from a local government authority.

Note that there are no amount nor time restrictions on these kinds of payments. This follows candidate expenditures, where expenditures by incumbents for any practice not otherwise prohibited can be considered the expenditure of a constant and continuing campaign. Nor is there any prohibition on a candidate himself being an owner or director or employee with the possibility of remuneration from the entity that performs these kinds of services, so long as the expenditures comply with the law.

Thus, it is entirely possible for a campaign with a large amount of fundraising through creative use of its spending practices to provide substantial income to a candidate or immediate family members, directly or indirectly. Not that it’s likely, as even the relaxed present expenditure rules provides limited opportunities even for a high-volume campaign to arrange expenditures in this fashion, but scale does not define the point that campaign funds should not go to supplementing a lifestyle, directly or indirectly.

The problematic ethics of the current rules would be diminished certainly if this space’s suggestions that only bona fide campaign expenditures along the lines of the their federal office definition that prohibits any “used to fulfill any commitment, obligation, or expense of a person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s election campaign or individual’s duties as a holder of … office” and that they may occur only related to a campaign period defined as nine months prior to an election. But these still could occur in that period for expenditures connected and only connected to campaigning. So reform must go further.

And that simply could be this: campaign work simply cannot be done, unless as a form of in-kind donation subject to those limitations and reporting, by any private or nonprofit entity where the candidate or immediate family member has any ownership, directorship or holds principal office in, or is an employee of it. What’s improper in an amount large enough to substantially improve a lifestyle still is improper even if it nets a covered person just one penny.

The only real hardship objection to this could be that in smaller jurisdictions it might render campaigning difficult. For example, what if in some one-horse town some guy running for office needs stakes for yard signs and there only one lumber yard there where the toilet attendant is his sister’s husband? Perhaps in these circumstances exceptions could be made for the employee stricture in small jurisdictions (these are made throughout the election and ethics codes), but it’s worth noting in these days in times, with cheap transportation, shipping, and Internet options available, there’s probably little increased cost or inconvenience involved in using alternatives to entirely local vendors.

One could argue that this is unfair to these family members, who in fact could offer the lowest fair pricing for something. But it’s always in the candidate’s purview not to run for office, and public service always should accentuate the service aspect ahead of any incidental enriching of relatives in the process.

Citizens should not have to endure the spectacle of candidates using donations through strategic expenditures as subsidies to them or their families. That this should garner a sympathetic reception from the citizenry makes it something, in addition to the other changes of what and when regarding expenditures, that should prompt Gov. Bobby Jindal and those jockeying to succeed him to get onto this issue and make it part of a campaign and/or legislative package.  

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