Campaign ‘trimmings’ too much

What’s “personal use” of campaign funds? Just roll through the campaign finance reports and you’ll find a lot of it: football tickets, steakhouse dinners with all the trimmings, country club dues. One politician, a legend, paid off his Jaguar from the campaign kitty.

State law is supposed to forbid the use of campaign money for personal expenses unrelated to a political campaign, the holding of public office or party position.

Over many years, “unrelated” has taken on new meaning, as campaign accounts have underwritten the lifestyles of public officials — the politicians most able to raise money from special interests, in particular, because of the power of incumbency.

We welcome an initiative by the Louisiana Board of Ethics to issue guidelines to restrict these abuses, but we caution the board that it’s dealing with vultures of uncanny ability to rationalize picking clean the carcass of regulations.

The board’s 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.

However, the proposed guidelines open up a lot of territory for abuse by allowing public officials to use the money if they meet some kind of general argument that relates the expenditures to politics.

Candidates would have the chance to explain why the spending should be considered campaign expenses or those related to the holding of office when they file their campaign finance report.

Think about the potential rationalizations for football tickets (and related fees) if a candidate says the tickets are for taking political supporters to a football game. Suddenly, season tickets are off the personal credit card and on the campaign account, and if the supporters turn out to be nephews and nieces, it’s a nice bonus.

A member of the ethics board, New Orleans lawyer Scott Schneider, is developing the guidelines, and he starts from a good place: “The goal (of the law) here was to say, ‘You should not be able to use your campaign funds to subsidize your lifestyle,’” Schneider said.

Given a history of abuses, why should anything other than direct campaign expenses be allowed?