Disclosure reduces campaign fund abuse
Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
Posted: 05/30/2010 09:56:26 PM PDT

To varying degrees, elected officials routinely use their campaign war chests for lavish trips, fancy meals and luxurious stays at posh destinations.

California law prohibits elected officials from using campaign dollars for personal use. But while a new state law enacted in July 2008 tightened reporting requirements for meals, travel and gifts, some say it is still too little and that more can be done to ensure politicians are not using campaign dollars to live high on the hog.

“It was part of an ongoing effort to provide greater disclosure to the public about how campaign funds were being spent,” Fair Political Practices Commission Executive Director Roman Porter said of the July 2008 change in reporting law.

State law, like federal law, gives politicians wide latitude to use their campaign money in virtually any way they want, as long as the expenditure is somehow related to political activities.

The new law requires lawmakers to briefly describe the “political, legislative or governmental purpose” of an expenditure and report the nature of gifts received, when they were received and who gave them if they are more than $50.

As to meal and travel expenses, elected officials are required to be more thorough in their reporting of who benefited from the meals and travel as well as the dates, locations and purposes of trips and meals.

Porter said the push for new reporting guidelines began in February 2007 with the appointment of Ross Johnson as chairman of the FPPC.

The enacting of the law in July 2008 coincided with news reports that then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez had spent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money on trips overseas, including more than $5,000 for a meeting at a wine shop in Bordeaux, France, and more than $2,500 for office expenses at a Louis Vuitton store in Paris.

Since then, a cursory review of some lawmakers’ campaign finance reports shows a “disparate level of compliance,” indicating the new law hasn’t gone far enough to ensure full disclosure, said Carmen Balber, Washington director of Consumer Watchdog.

“In some reports, you’ll find very specific disclosure … and in other cases there is no information at all,” Balber said. “We believe a lot more compliance is necessary for candidates so the public can really know if such expenses are meeting requirements under the law – that campaign dollars aren’t being spent for personal, instead of political, purposes.”

In a 2008 letter to FPPC Chairman Johnson supporting the new reporting regulations, Balber suggested, among other things, that lawmakers be required to report their travel itineraries and that new codes be added on 460 forms for meals, gifts, and golf.

Jessica Levinson with the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, who also teaches campaign finance at Loyola Law School, said campaign dollars can be used in a variety of campaign strategies, depending on the candidate.

“If they’re in a real dogfight, then funds would be spent on trying to reach as many voters as possible,” said Levinson.

If the candidate is an incumbent, in a relatively safe district and doesn’t face a significant challenge, then campaign funds are often spent to boost a candidate’s name recognition and support for his or her proposals on policy agendas, Levinson said.

Dissemination of slate mailers is another effective way to reach voters, she said.

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