End double dipping for lawmakers
The USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee raised valid questions in a recent investigative series about how state lawmakers are spending, monitoring and pocketing campaign donations and taxpayer dollars.
Top elected officials acknowledged the present system has blind spots and merits review, but there needs to be more than just lip service and feeble action.
Money can be a corrupting influence in politics — something long acknowledged by comedians and commentators like Will Rogers and Mark Twain — and Tennessee residents deserve to have lawmakers who are not unduly influenced by other people’s money.
The investigation showed that in 2016 dozens of legislators received nearly $32,000 in daily legislative payments called per diems for expenses they already covered with campaign funds — a practice called “double dipping” by one former legislator interviewed for the stories.
It is possible that the amount was actually $189,700 greater, but lax reporting requirements presently make that impossible to confirm.
Presently, there are many gaps in accountability and unusual expenditures made by lawmakers all the way to top leaders Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Beth Harwell.
The USA TODAY series uncovered incidences of legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, using campaign donations to pay for expenses, like hotels and registrations, then getting reimbursed by the state for the cost.
The reporting unveiled expenses ranging from hiring Barney Fife and Abraham Lincoln impersonators for $2,400 to subscribing to Sirius XM radio to paying $1,900 to family members for “volunteers service.”
Lawmakers used campaign money for NRA, sorority, and Sam’s Club memberships; passports; wedding gifts; and car washes.
The Standard club’s political action committee made campaign donations to lawmakers, which many in in turn used to pay for the club’s memberships.
While no one may have violated the law, the coverage raises serious concerns about elected officials’ ethical practices and the ability of the state to hold them accountable.
This investigation into 131 lawmaker’s per diem payments and campaign finances stemmed from the audit of disgraced former Rep. Jeremy Durham, who was expelled from the House of Representatives last year, following accusations of sexually harassing 22 women.
The audit showed that Durham may have broken campaign finance laws nearly 700 times and he lacked documentation showing whether $7,000 he used in campaign funds may have been covered illegitimately with per diems.
The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance only conducts random audits for 2 percent of lawmakers’ campaign finances in any given election cycle.
An amendment to a bill increasing that number to 4 percent is advancing in the General Assembly, but is that enough?
Separately, the management of the per diem system is handled by legislative staff.
There is presently no regular mechanism to compare campaign finances with per diem payments.
Lawmakers must be held to a higher standard and a few things could be done to address discrepancies:
» Require detailed reporting of all campaign expenses and per diem reimbursements
» Create the mechanism to compare campaign finances with per diem reimbursements
» Establish a penalty for legislators who violate the rules and enforce it.
Plainly, if a legislator is using other people’s money for expenses, they should not be collecting a reimbursement, courtesy of Tennessee taxpayers.
Legislative leaders praised the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee for its bringing to light these issues and said efforts were afoot to install “additional safeguards,” said McNally, R-Oak Ridge.