MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Twosituations involving questionable actions by public officials have been in thenews, and both raise this question: Why should this matter to the averageAlabamian?
Oneof the issues involves the indictment of Lowell Barron, who at one time was oneof Alabama's most powerful state senators (although he was arguably betterknown for being the target of another senator's fist on the floor of theSenate). Barron and a campaign staffer were charged with converting campaignfunds for personal use -- something properly banned by state law.
Theother news story involves an attempt by the leader of the Alabama Senate towater down a ban on legislators also holding a state job, popularly known as"double dipping."
Sowhy should it matter to taxpayers if an elected official uses campaigndonations for personal benefit? After all, as Barron's lawyer predictably andimmediately pointed out, it's not public money.
Iam in no way intending to imply Barron's guilt or innocence. That's for a juryto decide. But speaking generally and not about this specific case, it's stillimportant that the state law against using campaign funds for personal expensesis strictly enforced.
Perhapsthe simplest and most obvious reason is that campaign donors give the money toget a candidate elected, not to personally enrich the candidate. Their wishesshould be honored.
Buteven 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 electedofficials.
Eachelection year special interests pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into thecampaign coffers of elected officials, and do so to win the support of thoseofficials. If they gave the money directly to the elected official to seektheir support on certain issues, it could be seen as a bribe.
Butif they give it to a campaign, and then the candidate could use it for avacation to Paris or to buy a car for his personal use or to make housepayments, how would that be different from giving it directly to the candidate?
Alabamalaw states that a "candidate, public official, or principal campaigncommittee" may only use campaign contribution for:
--"Necessary and ordinary expenditures of the campaign."
--"Expenditures that are reasonably related to performing the duties of theoffice held," but not "personal and legislative livingexpenses."
--"Donations to the State General Fund, the Education Trust Fund, orequivalent county or municipal funds."
--Donations to a federally recognized charity.
-- Inaugural or transitional expenses."
That's agood and necessary law -- one that would open the way to corruption if notenforced.
Ifanything, Alabamians should be pushing state Attorney General Luther Strangeand local district attorneys to be looking closely at the campaign reports of all state and local elected officials toensure that they are not using campaign funds for personal expenses not allowedby law.
Barron'ssupporters are saying that the attorney general -- a Republican -- is pursuingthe former senator because he is a Democrat. Alabamians should hope thatStrange will investigate all elected officials -- Democrats and Republicans --to ensure they are following the law.
Thereasons that the state's new double-dipping law should not be watered down arejust as crucial to the integrity of state government.
Readerswill recall that the law against a legislator holding another state job waspassed in the wake of scandals involving legislators convicted of doing littleor no work for the lucrative state jobs they also held. There was even one caseof a legislator who funneled public money he controlled as a legislator throughthe state agency for which he worked so he could use it to pay gambling debts.
But evenwithout such abuses, a ban on double-dipping would be good public policy forseveral reasons.
First,legislators spend huge chunks of time in Montgomery performing theirlegislative duties. It is difficult to see how someone could be a teacher or acollege administrator and miss three days a week for weeks on end away fromtheir other job while serving as a legislator.
I'veheard many double-dippers attempt to justify being away from their full-timejob 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 ofeducators. 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 legislatorworks when it comes to lawmakers passing budgets. Arguably the most important job of alegislator is to pass the budgets, and if a legislator holds a job with acertain agency, it almost would be impossible for a legislator to be impartialwhen it comes to allocating money for that agency.
Anyonewho has followed the Legislature over the years has seen the following happenagain and again. Someone not employed by a public two- or four-year collegegets elected to the Legislature. Soon thereafter, the newly minted legislatorshows up with a full-time or part-time job with a public college. Before thetwo-year college scandals of a few years ago, that happened so often that moredozens of legislators worked for public colleges and schools.
Thepublic cannot be blamed for questioning whether that hiring was simply thepublic college ensuring that it had its own pet legislator to protect itsinterests.
Itappears that the latest effort to water down the double-dipping ban bygrandfathering in current legislators has failed for now. But Alabamians shouldwatch closely to make certain that future efforts to weaken the law don'tsucceed.
KenHare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial pageeditor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at email@example.com.