End dou­ble dip­ping for law­mak­ers

The Commercial Appeal - - Viewpoint -

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.

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