The chairman of the State Board of Elections might have sent a few knees to bouncing with the suggestion that, should the board find wrongdoing and impose a fine on a specific campaign, the candidate should be held responsible for the money if the campaign can’t pay it. His point has merit, although some contemplation would be needed before a law was enacted.
After the conclusion of hearings into the finance activities of former Gov. Mike Easley’s campaigns, Chairman Larry Leake said, “Candidates do not accept sufficient responsibility and ownership of their campaigns. If all understand that if their committee messes up, then the state board could be getting into their pocketbook, they might be more attentive.”
In the case of Easley’s campaign, the board levied a $100,000 penalty, which the campaign committee doesn’t have. Other investigations in past years that have produced penalties have resulted in not much payment, and there’s no provision for the money to be collected from candidates.
In fact, state Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand of Fayetteville, long a fund-raising power on Jones Street, said of his campaign financing: “I don’t look at my reports, and I don’t make the deposits. I don’t write the checks. I don’t want to get within 50 yards of it.”
The “pro” of Leake’s suggestion is that indeed, a candidate might send a strong message to staffers that no rule-bending will be tolerated, the incentive being that the candidate doesn’t want to have the board knocking on his or her door.
The “con”? Well, the state doesn’t want to impose a law that might discourage good people, typically busy people, from getting involved in politics for fear of being held financially responsible for mistakes of subordinates.
It is plausible to some degree that a candidate at the top of a major statewide campaign would not know the origin and location of every dime in the war chest, or be able to control the actions and promises of all those working on his or her behalf. It would thus be hard to argue that a candidate should be personally responsible for penalties in all individual instances of minor wrongdoing or mistakes.
However, if a pattern of unethical behavior was revealed and the candidate clearly was aware of it, that’s different, and might warrant the option Leake is advocating. The elections board, during a week of hearings, focused on campaign law violations. Even while fining Easley’s campaign for the governor’s unreported acceptance of free airplane flights, it referred evidence of possible crimes to the Wake County district attorney’s office. Federal prosecutors also are reviewing several aspects of the former governor’s affairs.
A candidate or officeholder who is suspected of lawbreaking can and must be called to account through the courts. But a higher standard of responsibility when it comes to the proper handling and disclosure of campaign finance data might help keep all candidates out of the ditch that is a criminal proceeding.