Two situations involving questionable actions by public officials have been in the news, and both raise this question: Why should this matter to the average Alabamian?
One of the issues involves the indictment of Lowell Barron, who at one time was one of Alabama's most powerful state senators (although he was arguably better known for being the target of another senator's fist on the floor of the Senate). Barron and a campaign staffer were charged with converting campaign funds for personal use -- something properly banned by state law.
The other news story involves an attempt by the leader of the Alabama Senate to water down a ban on legislators also holding a state job, popularly known as "double dipping."
So why should it matter to taxpayers if an elected official uses campaign donations for personal benefit? After all, as Barron's lawyer predictably and immediately pointed out, it's not public money.
I am in no way intending to imply Barron's guilt or innocence. That's for a jury to decide. But speaking generally and not about this specific case, it's still important that the state law against using campaign funds for personal expenses is strictly enforced.
Perhaps the simplest and most obvious reason is that campaign donors give the money to get a candidate elected, not to personally enrich the candidate. Their wishes should be honored.
But even more importantly, without such a ban on personal use of campaign funds, the campaign process could be used as a mechanism to launder bribes to elected officials.
Each election year special interests pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of elected officials, and do so to win the support of those officials. If they gave the money directly to the elected official to seek their support on certain issues, it could be seen as a bribe.
But if they give it to a campaign, and then the candidate could use it for a vacation to Paris or to buy a car for his personal use or to make house payments, how would that be different from giving it directly to the candidate?
Alabama law states that a "candidate, public official, or principal campaign committee" may only use campaign contribution for:
-- "Necessary and ordinary expenditures of the campaign."
-- "Expenditures that are reasonably related to performing the duties of the office held," but not "personal and legislative living expenses."
-- "Donations to the State General Fund, the Education Trust Fund, or equivalent county or municipal funds."
-- Donations to a federally recognized charity.
-- Inaugural or transitional expenses."
That's a good and necessary law -- one that would open the way to corruption if not enforced.
If anything, Alabamians should be pushing state Attorney General Luther Strange and local district attorneys to be looking closely at the campaign reports of all state and local elected officials to ensure that they are not using campaign funds for personal expenses not allowed by law.
Barron's supporters are saying that the attorney general -- a Republican -- is pursuing the former senator because he is a Democrat. Alabamians should hope that Strange will investigate all elected officials -- Democrats and Republicans -- to ensure they are following the law.
The reasons that the state's new double-dipping law should not be watered down are just as crucial to the integrity of state government.
Readers will recall that the law against a legislator holding another state job was passed in the wake of scandals involving legislators convicted of doing little or no work for the lucrative state jobs they also held. There was even one case of a legislator who funneled public money he controlled as a legislator through the state agency for which he worked so he could use it to pay gambling debts.
But even without such abuses, a ban on double-dipping would be good public policy for several reasons.
First, legislators spend huge chunks of time in Montgomery performing their legislative duties. It is difficult to see how someone could be a teacher or a college administrator and miss three days a week for weeks on end away from their other job while serving as a legislator.
I've heard many double-dippers attempt to justify being away from their full-time job by talking about working on weekends and at night and using vacation time. But frankly, such explanations just don't wash -- especially in the case of educators. If nothing else, it simply isn't fair to students.
Second, there is a built-in prejudice in favor of the agency for which the legislator works when it comes to lawmakers passing budgets. Arguably the most important job of a legislator is to pass the budgets, and if a legislator holds a job with a certain agency, it almost would be impossible for a legislator to be impartial when it comes to allocating money for that agency.
Anyone who has followed the Legislature over the years has seen the following happen again and again. Someone not employed by a public two- or four-year college gets elected to the Legislature. Soon thereafter, the newly minted legislator shows up with a full-time or part-time job with a public college. Before the two-year college scandals of a few years ago, that happened so often that more dozens of legislators worked for public colleges and schools.
The public cannot be blamed for questioning whether that hiring was simply the public college ensuring that it had its own pet legislator to protect its interests.
It appears that the latest effort to water down the double-dipping ban by grandfathering in current legislators has failed for now. But Alabamians should watch closely to make certain that future efforts to weaken the law don't succeed.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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