REPRIMANDED Rep. Carl Anderson certainly was right when he said the Senate Ethics Committee was trying to use him as an example, to demonstrate that we don’t need independent oversight of legislators’ compliance with the ethics law.
He almost certainly was wrong when he implied that the committee wouldn’t have reprimanded and fined him for failing to report campaign contributions and expenditures if its members weren’t trying to make that political point.
And in the end, although the committee continued its pattern of noticing and pursuing obvious violations that no one else seems to notice, its action also demonstrated — yet again — why legislators are simply incapable of acting as prosecutor, judge and jury of their colleagues.
Rep. Anderson came under the Senate Ethics Committee’s jurisdiction because he ran for an open Senate seat. He came to the committee’s attention because he filed a clearly erroneous campaign report.
I would be inclined to call it a clearly fraudulent campaign report. And this distinction gets at the problem with legislative self-policing.
After subpoenaing and reviewing his campaign bank account, the Senate committee concluded that Mr. Anderson had no criminal intent when he filed a false report, declined to report the names of at least 13 people who gave his campaign a total of $6,800 and declined to report 28 of 33 expenditures, totaling $8,700.
The committee came to this conclusion, it explained in a footnote, because Mr. Anderson’s bank records “did not reflect any inappropriate use of campaign expenditures; instead, it reflected only unreported campaign contributions and expenditures.”
Now that sounds reasonable, if you don’t think about it too long: It is good that Mr. Anderson apparently didn’t go all Bobby Harrell/Robert Ford on us and convert campaign donations to personal use. But let’s think about it a bit longer.
He clearly intended to not tell the public who financed his campaign. He clearly intended to not tell the public how he spent his donors’ money. Those are both crimes. Yet the committee declared that he lacked criminal intent. I’m not sure how you lack criminal intent when you clearly intend to break the law.
Clearly — and I say clearly because this is not the first time the committee has looked at these particular crimes this way — the committee doesn’t think it’s that serious for people to violate the reporting requirements, as long as they don’t misspend the money.
But it is.
Although we hope the disclosure law will keep people from using campaign money in an illegal way, that’s not the primary purpose of disclosure. Indeed, someone who is inclined to use campaign money illegally might just be inclined to lie about it on his disclosure form. But hold that thought.
The primary purpose of disclosure is to let voters know who is bankrolling candidates, and how those candidates are spending special-interest money, so they can use that information to help decide how to vote. That is to say that disclosure is not simply a means to discovering whether other laws were violated. It is an end in itself.
And just as it did in the cases of Jake Knotts and Kent Williams, the committee failed to appreciate that.
This is a blindness that comes from being someone who accepts donations from special interests and has to fill out those reports, rather than someone who tries to make informed decisions based on those reports. This is a blindness that members of an independent commission would be far less likely to have.
I believe that most if not all of the members of the Senate Ethics Committee honestly want to do a good job policing their colleagues. I believe they honestly believe they’re not covering up any violations. I believe they honestly believe they are doing a good job.
But they are blind.
I don’t want to downplay the significance of the committee’s enforcement actions. I especially don’t want to downplay the value of the committee reviewing all ethics reports for obvious errors; this is something that neither the House Ethics Committee nor the State Ethics Commission does because neither has the the staff to deal with the much larger volume of reports it receives.
But while senators insist that their reviews demonstrate that there’s no need for reform, what it actually demonstrates is how much we need someone looking over everybody’s ethics reports, or at least a sizable, random sample. And that’s not going to happen unless or until the Legislature provides the money to staff up the House Ethics Committee and the State Ethics Commission. And it’s not going to do that unless it reforms the ethics law.
This case also reminds us of a gaping hole in even the Senate’s best efforts, and in everybody’s efforts: It’s based on serendipity. Like previous cases the Senate committee has made, this one was the result of a legislator being either so arrogant or so ignorant that he handed the committee the evidence it needed to recognize that he had violated the law. Mr. Anderson filed a report that showed he spent money but didn’t show where he got the money. And then, while he was ignoring the committee’s repeated requests to provide the missing information, he filed a later report showing a single expenditure to pay off his credit card, instead of itemizing the campaign expenditures.
This is why, regardless of who is in charge of investigating legislators, we need a system of random audits of campaign reports — not simply reviews of the sort the Senate committee gives, but actual audits, of the sort the IRS does, comparing campaign bank accounts with campaign reports.
And all the other stuff — about blindness and symbiotic relationships and public trust — is why we need somebody other than legislators investigating legislators.
Cinidi Ross Scoppe, associate editorial page editor at The (Columbia) State, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.