PAR: Campaign finances rules should be more clear

There needs to be more “clarity” about acceptable uses of campaign dollars to help candidates comply with the law, the head of the Public Affairs Research Council said Wednesday.

“What’s really important is compliance, knowing what the right thing is to do,” PAR President Robert Travis Scott said. “It’s about disclosure ... It’s not gotcha.”

Scott testified as the legislative committees that oversee campaign finance laws began a study on the appropriate use of campaign funds.

Under state law, campaign contributions cannot be used, loaned or pledged for any personal expense unrelated to a political campaign, the holding of public office or party position.

The Louisiana Board of Ethics, which polices candidate compliance with campaign finance laws, has been struggling with what’s acceptable and what’s not.

PAR is a Baton Rouge governmental research group that studies ethics and campaign-finance issues.

Scott suggested that legislators look at Federal Elections Commission regulations, which include lists of do’s and don’ts for those running for Congress.

Those rules state that if an expense would exist even in the absence of the candidacy or even if the officeholder were not in office, then the personal-use ban applies. Among items on the banned-use list are tickets to sporting events, concerts, dues to country clubs and health clubs, personal mortgage payments or clothing for political functions.

Candidates should also be required to provide more detail about expenditures they are making with campaign funds, Scott said. For instance, instead of just reporting the purchase of a gift, the identity of the person receiving it should also be disclosed, just as who may have received a gift card from Best Buy, he said.

“You don’t want a campaign contribution that turns into a gift,” he said. “It’s a real image problem.”

Scott mentioned candidates paying for vehicles with campaign funds and sporting event tickets.

He urged legislators to favor “a slightly more restrictive system,” even if they had to “give up a few perks.”

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, said the key is disclosure of “whatever you are receiving and how you are spending” as well as “making it easy for the public to find out.”

Murray said the FEC has rules restricting campaign account spending. But most congressmen also have political action committees “where they can do everything pretty much they can’t do with their campaign account,” he said.

Ethics Board member Peppi Bruneau, of New Orleans, told the study panel that an effort is underway to update “confusing” campaign finance and personal financial disclosure forms.

“Forms should be easy to fill out and understand,” said Bruneau. “If the purpose is gotcha, we should keep what we have.”