The front-page article of today’s Providence Journal raises a contrarian warning flag for me:
[Former U.S. Attorney Peter] Neronha said the Aponte, Jackson and Fox cases had threads that are common to many public corruption prosecutions. They all involved misuse of campaign funds, he said, and for relatively small amounts of money and the cases were built on examining those campaign finance records.
“That’s how we got Fox,” Neronha said. “They are all mini-Foxes.”
It’s obvious that the public has an interest in protecting itself from bribery of government officials, but it should also be obvious that setting up a system for regulating political campaigns is sensitive territory. Increasingly, these incidents seem to be moving from cases of using campaign finances in order to purchase influence to cases that purely involve violations of campaign laws. As a community, we may conclude that campaign finance laws are important to enforce strictly, but we lose sight of something important if we elide mafia crime and systemic bribery of government officials with elected officials’ use of money given to them to advance their political careers for expenses that don’t appear to directly further that cause.
Dan McGowan, of WPRI, provides the most detail that I’ve come across for the case of Providence City Council President Luis Aponte, and this is the crux:
[Rhode Island campaign finance director Richard] Thornton conducted a review of Aponte’s campaign expenses and personal bank account expenses from December 2013 through December 2015, and the report stated that it “suggests that campaign funds were used for personal expenses, particularly during periods when there were insufficient funds in his personal bank account.”
Sure, the amount in Aponte’s case (around $14,000) is substantial, but this is the sort of temptation that anybody who’s ever had a period of living paycheck to paycheck can understand. Moreover, on a smaller scale, it’s easy to think of examples in which donors probably wouldn’t object to the use of their money to cover expenses that may not fall within the letter of campaign finance law. If, for example, your Internet is crucial to your campaigning and you can’t pay the bill, a temporary loan (or even withdrawal) of campaign funds isn’t obviously a violation of the donors’ intent.
Note that I’ve picked that example from thin air, and a process may exist to apportion Internet fees, as a specific example, but people who want to participate in their government may not do so if they’re going to have to figure out every little accounting nuance. Do we really want to make representative democracy such that anybody running for any office needs to hire an accountant specializing in campaign finances?
And then there’s the information — which I guarantee will be news to some folks inside and outside of government — that campaign finance officials can dig into candidates’ personal finances looking for violations. Many people are just not going to want to get involved with this mess, meaning that incumbents will have less competition, which will lead to less of the true accountability that politicians are supposed to have in a competitive political system and therefore more corruption.
We’re in a regulatory trap, here, and while it may create content for journalists and opportunities for established politicians, it isn’t healthy for our state or country. The solution isn’t to chase corruption deeper and deeper into engaged citizens’ personal lives. Rather, the solution is to reduce the scope of what government does (so there’s less influence to buy) and limit the length of time that individual people can hold particular offices.