Questions raised on campaign fund use
What’s an acceptable use of campaign contributions?
State law provides that contributions may be used for any lawful purpose, but the funds “shall not be used, loaned or pledged by any person for any personal use unrelated to a political campaign or the holding of public office.”
Legislators and other politicians have used campaign contributions to buy vehicles, including a Jaguar automobile on one occasion; to purchase Tiger Athletic Foundation memberships; to pay country club memberships; to join Mardi Gras krewes; and even to hire a baby sitter.
Campaign finance reports today are replete with those types of expenditures.
Prior to the 2012 legislative session, the Louisiana Board of Ethics, which oversees state campaign finance laws, asked the Legislature to provide definitions in state law for the terms “personal use,” “related to a political campaign” and “holding of a public office.”
Meanwhile, the board formed a subcommittee to develop guidelines it could use in determining appropriateness. The board started its inquiry with federal campaign finance law regulations that other states have adopted.
Among the items considered personal use and off-limits for federal campaign funds are clothing expenditures; admission to sporting events, concerts, theater or other entertainment; expenditures for gifts for constituents, other than flowers for funerals; and donations or gifts of money to constituents.
The state campaign finance standards moved into the legal arena with a case involving Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden, in which the board alleged that campaign cash was improperly used to help pay for the funeral expenses of a murder victim, contribute to a program for students traveling abroad, and sponsor a Metro Council member’s daughter at the Congressional Youth Leadership Council.
Holden’s attorney Gray Sexton, the former state ethics administrator, said the board was “imposing unfair, unauthorized and impermissible standards.”
Kay Bates, of Baton Rouge, the 19th Judicial District judge, ruled earlier this year that Holden did not violate the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act because he “derived no personal benefit or added publicity from these donations.” The board has filed its notice of appeal.
At its June meeting, the Ethics Board struggled with the issue of using campaign funds to pay legal fees in a case involving Ouachita Parish Sheriff Royce Toney. Toney wanted to access $148,974 in his campaign account to fight federal charges of conspiracy, computer fraud, identity theft and obstruction.
Sexton, who is Toney’s attorney, argued that the law permits use of the campaign account because the charges relate to Toney’s holding of public office.
Kathleen Allen, the state’s ethics administrator, countered that the law allows use for any lawful purpose related to the campaign and holding of public office.
A majority of the board voted to deny Toney access to his campaign funds.
Ethics Board vice chairman Scott Schneider said, “Just because he’s the sheriff doesn’t mean everything he does falls within the scope of his employment.”
Sexton sought a declaratory opinion from the board instead of the usual advisory opinion, signaling a court appeal of an adverse board decision is contemplated.
The 2012 Legislature didn’t address the question of appropriate use of campaign accounts. A promised resolution to embark upon a legislative study involving committees with campaign finance oversight was never filed.
The Ethics Board panel continues to move forward to develop some rules of its own without guidance from legislators, who don’t seem very interested. It’s a murky area of the law that works to many politicians’ benefit.
Marsha Shuler covers ethics issues for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. Her email address is email@example.com.