Ethics and politics, ideally, are words that go together. They showed up in the same sentences in stories last week, but in a negative way.
Mainly, I refer to the ethical lapses of now-former state Sen. Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, which led to embarrassment for him and his party and ultimately his resignation. The episode raised questions about how Bookout got away with what he was doing for so long. A review of his campaign finance reports shows he was spending thousands in unitemized expenditures on unopposed campaigns going back to 2006.
The answer is that our current system of reviewing campaign finance reports is reactive in its design, not proactive. No one is reviewing the reports unless someone complains, especially when it comes to unopposed races.
When campaign finance reports are filed with the secretary of state’s office, the office receives the reports and makes them available to the public. The reports are posted as "pdf" documents on the secretary of state’s website.
"We receive them. We stamp them received. We scan them, and we file them," said Alex Reed, spokesman for the secretary of state.
The responsibility for enforcement lies with the Arkansas Ethics Commission. The panel’s mission is to "serve as the compliance and enforcement agency under Arkansas’ standards of conduct and disclosure laws concerning candidates for public office."
The problem is that the short-staffed commission does not review campaign finance reports as they are filed. Instead, commissioners respond to citizen complaints against candidates, which triggers an investigation.
In that respect, it is the public that serves as the watchdog for candidate filings. That often means candidate reports are scrutinized mainly by political opponents. Bookout’s campaign has never received much attention because he has always run unopposed. It is likely no one ever would have noticed without the complaint from Bob Hester, a conservative activist from Jonesboro.
Bookout’s resignation has produced a flurry of activity as campaign finance reports from other candidates are examined. Some issues already have been found and others likely will follow.
For example, Democrat-leaning blogger Matt Campbell found some personal expenditures reported on Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr’s 2011 reports on his post election debt-retirement activity. The discovery hit the Internet the same day Bookout resigned. Darr acknowledged the mistake and said he was amending the report to "ensure that any expenditures made by the campaign that were not specific to fundraising activities are reclassified as debt reduction payments."
While Darr’s mistakes were inexcusable and sloppy, there were huge differences between what he did and the events that led to Bookout’s resignation. For starters, Darr fully disclosed the improper expenditures while Bookout hid the amounts in lump sums. In addition, the amounts for Darr are much smaller and were for incorrectly expensing money the campaign owed him for personal loans made to his campaign, not money from campaign donors.
Still, the incorrect reporting was glaring and needs to be corrected. But the bigger problem of how we review reports also needs to be addressed. The current system relies primarily on those with a partisan interest in keeping an eye on campaign disclosures. It lends its attention to hotly contested races while unopposed candidates or those without serious opposition escape scrutiny.
One possible solution could be funding additional positions at the ethics commission dedicated to reviewing reports as they are filed rather than waiting for complaints. Or perhaps a nonpartisan or bipartisan group of citizen watchdogs could organize to take on the task.
Something definitely needs to change.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.