Feds should check out Spano loans

Tampa Bay Times - - Opinion -

Cam­paign fi­nance laws serve a num­ber of worth­while pur­poses. They act as a check on un­lim­ited money flood­ing into a cam­paign. They ex­pose the fi­nan­cial re­la­tion­ships be­tween can­di­dates and donors, high­light­ing the po­ten­tial for spe­cial in­ter­ests to shape pub­lic pol­icy. They also are an ex­er­cise in trans­parency for can­di­dates and the gov­ern­ment alike. That’s why the Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion and Congress should ex­am­ine the loans newly elected Re­pub­li­can U.S. Rep. Ross Spano ob­tained as part of his win­ning cam­paign in Novem­ber.

Spano ac­knowl­edges his cam­paign fi­nanc­ing may have bro­ken the rules. In a fil­ing Nov. 30 to the FEC, he said he took out four per­sonal loans from June through Oc­to­ber, to­tal­ing $180,000, from two peo­ple he de­scribed as friends. Then he loaned his cam­paign $167,000 over vir­tu­ally the same timetable. Spano’s cam­paign re­ports listed the money as hav­ing come from his “per­sonal funds.” In his let­ter to the FEC, Spano’s at­tor­ney said Spano and the two lenders be­lieved at the time they were act­ing “in full com­pli­ance with the law.”

Yet un­der fed­eral cam­paign fi­nance law, a loan made to a can­di­date with the in­tent of pro­vid­ing money to a cam­paign must be con­sid­ered a cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion, not a can­di­date’s per­sonal funds. And any such loan must ad­here to cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion lim­its — $2,700 each for the pri­mary and gen­eral elec­tion, far less than what Spano re­ported he re­ceived from the loans. The law’s in­tent is to pre­vent a wealthy in­di­vid­ual from sin­gle -hand­edly bankrolling a can­di­date.

Spano is an at­tor­ney who was elected to three terms in the Florida House, and his fail­ure to ac­cu­rately re­port at best re­flects poorly on his prepa­ra­tion for higher of­fice. What’s worse, he’s look­ing for le­niency from the FEC un­der a pro­vi­sion whereby can­di­dates who “sel­f­re­port” vi­o­la­tions can have their cases fast-tracked and any penal­ties re­duced by be­tween 25 per­cent and 75 per­cent of what the com­mis­sion would have oth­er­wise

sought. That for­give­ness doesn’t seem war­ranted here; the Tampa Bay Times re­ported that Spano missed two dead­lines this year to file a fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure form, which would have re­vealed any loans. He filed the form Nov. 3, three days be­fore the elec­tion and af­ter the Times asked him about it the day be­fore.

Spano re­ferred the Times to a spokes­woman, who said the missed dead­lines were a “cam­paign er­ror” and added: “We ex­pect to see some penal­ties here.” But she de­fended Spano, not­ing he does not prac­tice elec­tion law and in­sist­ing that his mis­han­dling of the loans was “not a pat­tern of be­hav­ior.”

The is­sue here isn’t whether the loans tipped the bal­ance for Spano’s six-point vic­tory over Demo­crat Kris­ten Carl­son in the race for District 15, which cov­ers east­ern Hills­bor­ough, west­ern Polk and south­ern Lake coun­ties. Rather, vot­ers de­serve to know who’s be­hind the can­di­dates be­fore they cast their bal­lots. The whole point of cam­paign fi­nance laws is to en­able vot­ers to make in­formed de­ci­sions. The dis­clo­sure re­quire­ments are nei­ther in­va­sive nor oner­ous, and treat­ing them as af­ter­thoughts re­flects a dis­re­spect for the elec­tions process and for vot­ers.

The elec­tions com­mis­sion should care­fully in­ves­ti­gate this case, as should the House Ethics Com­mit­tee. The district’s vot­ers de­serve an­swers, and Congress needs ev­ery­thing it can to push its voter ap­proval rat­ing above 20 per­cent.

Ross Spano

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