Campaign spending reviewed

Candidates for public office would have to explain why the purchase of LSU football tickets and meals at Ruth’s Chris Steak House with campaign funds are legal expenditures under a proposal being considered by a state ethics panel.

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

The Louisiana Board of Ethics is in the process of drafting proposed guidelines, tackling an old and thorny subject of what constitutes “personal use” of campaign funds.

Ethics Board Vice Chairman Scott Schneider is chairing a subcommittee developing guidelines on how expenditures will be assessed for compliance with the law.
“These will be our expectations,” he said.

The idea is to have the rules approved this spring by the Ethics Board, then given to the Legislature for sign-off.

The working draft includes a list of allowed expenditures, such as campaign advertising and bumper stickers, and a list of what’s banned outright, such as country club membership dues, personal residence mortgage payments and legal fees for criminal defense.

Then, there’s a long list of items for which there would be a “presumption” that the expenditures are for personal use. Candidates would have the chance to explain why they should be considered campaign expenses or those related to the holding of office when they file their campaign finance report.

The presumptively inappropriate expenditures include those for clothing; admission to a sporting event, concert, theater or other entertainment venue unless related to a campaign fundraiser; dues, fees or gratuities for civic, nonprofit or social organizations; and travel, lodging, food and drink unrelated to campaign or public position.

“If I had my way, I would make it (the law) a lot clearer,” said Schneider, a New Orleans lawyer. “The goal here was to say, ‘You should not be able to use your campaign funds to subsidize your lifestyle.’ ”

Legislators and other public officials’ reports include such things as expenditures to purchase LSU football and baseball tickets as well as dues to the Tiger Athletic Foundation required to get the premium seating.

“I look at LSU tickets and TAF membership, my immediate reaction is those expenses would exist regardless of whether someone is a public official or candidate for office. In my mind, there’s a presumption this is pure personal use. But there may be some rationale where it’s not pure personal use,” Schneider said.

State House and Governmental Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Tim Burns said the Ethics Board undertaking is not an easy one.

“I think it’s hard to do a bright line,” said Burns, R-Mandeville.

Burns said the approach under discussion requiring candidates and public officials to justify the expense “may be one way to address” the personal use dilemma.

“It makes people think it through,” Burns said. “It sort of raises the consciousness of it.”

In addition, Burns said the expenditures could be questioned down the road by a political opponent, so candidates should be able to justify them.

Legislators’ campaign finance reports are replete with expenditures for the purchase of sporting event tickets, dinners at expensive restaurants, automobile leases, country club and golf club memberships, trips to the Washington Mardi Gras ball and the like.

Former House Speaker Charlie DeWitt finished purchasing a Jaguar with his campaign account.

“If you are going to put them on the report, you need to provide more information why it’s not a personal use of campaign funds,” Schneider said.

“There’s a sense that we don’t want to pull the rug out from under people, change the direction 180 degrees,” Schneider said. “There’s just a lot of areas where this board disagrees with the previous board decisions (on what’s appropriate). Do we start cracking down on people who are relying on old advisory opinions or put people on notice that this is the way this board sees this issue?”

Schneider said the latter approach is the one the board opted to take.