More than eight months ago I wrote that the campaign finance reports candidates must file with Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, especially the reports on candidate expenses, are all but worthless. Because no real documentation is required candidates can use their campaign contributions to pay personal expenses instead of legitimate campaign expenses. All that blew up in the headlines this week with an excellent story by political editor Geoff Pender of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. The story was first posted online early Thursday evening and headlined that the FBI is probing State Auditor Stacey Pickering’s campaign funds. The story raised a lot of serious questions and could certainly become an explosive issue that could seriously hurt Pickering’s re-election campaign. The issue regarding Pickering’s campaign expenditures was first raised a few weeks ago on the Gulf Coast by his Republican primary opponent. Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler raised the issue of the state auditor’s campaign disbursements being used for personal expenses. The original story in a Gulf Coast newspaper did not receive widespread coverage. That certainly won’t be the case with Pender’s story. Pickering can talk all he wants about “negative campaign tactics” and last minute dirty politics, but a capable reporter like Pender does not play a political game against any candidate or for the benefit of any candidate. Anyone who has bothered to review Pickering’s campaign finance reports for several years knows there are some very obvious questionable items regarding his campaign expenses. Forget about all the BS about last minute dirty campaign tactics. Just read Pender’s story about the FBI probe of Pickering in the newspaper or go to the Clarion-Ledger online and read the story. Too often reporting about campaign finances only deals with the big question of how much money a candidate has raised or how much cash they have on hand for the rest of their campaign. That is not the case with Pender’s story. Remember, Chicago mobster Al Capone eventually went to prison for tax evasion, not the many murders he was alleged to have been involved with. If Mississippi candidates are taking money for personal expenses out of their campaign accounts they should be reporting it on their federal and state taxes as income. (Editor’s note: The column above was written prior to Pickering’s written response to the article by Geoff Pender. In a word, Pickering’s statement can only be described as weak and still left unanswered questions. His statement would almost indicate that the Clarion-Ledger article about the FBI probe of his campaign finances was written by his opponent, Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler, rather than by Pender.)
Valid campaign expense reports issues raised in Republican Sen. Will Longwitz’s re-election campaign
While Pender’s story of the alleged FBI probe of Pickering’s campaign is making the big headlines, campaign finance reports of state Sen. Will Longwitz are also a legitimate campaign issue. As I noted last December, Mississippi campaign finance reporting laws are so weak that one could report a $2,000 campaign check to American Express. No
documentation is required. That could mean a candidate paid American Express $2,000 for legitimate campaign travel (hotels, meals, gas, etc.) or it could mean the candidate and his wife charged $2,000 to American Express for a weekend trip to New Orleans. During his term of office, Secretary of State Hosemann has proposed numerous good government legislation for business and other matters, but he has proposed nothing to improve the possible bogus reporting of campaign finance expenditures. Longwitz is not alone. There are probably other candidates who are filing questionable reports when it comes to campaign finance expenditures. Longwitz is an interesting case. He represents a state senate district that is safe for Repubicans. About two thirds of his district represents suburban Madison County and the other third is the Republican areas of northeast Jackson. He defeated a weak Republican opponent four years ago. Once elected he hooked up with Sen. Chris McDaniel’s Senate Conservative Coalition, the anti-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ group of tea party conservatives in the state senate. For various reasons he basically was sent packing by the McDaniel group and then tried to do a make-up with Lt. Gov. Reeves. Longwitz is not held in high regard by most of his Republican colleagues in the senate. This year Longwitz, as an incumbent, apparently had a solid lead against his Republican primary opponent, Bill Billingsley. However, many of those opposing the re-election of Longwitz feel that his campaign report expenditures raise many questions and would argue that Longwitz is another candidate spending money on personal expenses rather than campaign expenses. For example, expenses to the same source that total more than $200 in a reporting year must be reported. That means if a candidate spends $20 per month on a certain item to a particular vendor, the cumulative total of $240 a year must be itemized. In Longwitz’s report of July 8, 2011 he reported $2,062 in itemized disbursements but reported a questionable $4,066 in non-itemized disbursements. The same was true for a Jan. 31, 2013 report when Longwitz reported just $12,475 in itemized disbursements for the full year of 2012, but $13,121 in non-itemized disbursements. Longwitz showed total disbursements of over $25,000 during a non-election year. Other of his expenditure reports from 2011 through 2015 also look questionable. From late 2014 through May 2015 Longwitz showed undocuments payments to American Express in excess of $5,000. With his district in the Jackson metro area, why would Longwitz have the charges to American Express that one would normally associate with travel such as hotels, etc.? Longwitz also has reported loan repayments to himself that are far in excess of what he reported as personal loans to his campaign. If you review the campaign finance expenditures of Longwitz since he first starting filing reports when he ran for the state senate in 2011 until his most recent 2015 reports, on a much smaller scale than Pickering’s reports for a statewide office, questions can be raised about whether Longwitz is spending for personal expenses or very legitimate campaign expenses. If Longwitz is using his campaign account to pay for some personal expense it would sure be interesting to see if he reported that money as income on his federal and state income taxes. It is also interesting that several months ago when I called Hosemann’s office with questions about a campaign finance report filed by Longwitz, I was told , “We do not have authority to penalize” and we have “no enforcement authority.” Mississippians need to wake up and we need some legislators who are willing to stand strong for campaign finance reforms.