Will legislators put an end to “legalized bribery”?
The upcoming 2017 session of the Mississippi Legislature will face the usual mix of key issues: funding for public education, transportation, meeting the needs of state agencies while balancing the state budget despite stagnant revenues, providing much need health care for Mississippians, job creation and on and on. The ugly issue of political ethics (i.e. campaign finance reform) will again get much needed attention even if it will not be a favorite issue with many legislators. The past Sunday Clarion-Ledger political editor Geoff Pender reported that House Speaker Philip Gunn says campaign finance reform will be a top priority. Gunn should have, and could have, done something about campaign finance reform during the 2016 session when the bill died a shameful death in the House. Gunn claims he had nothing to do with the disgraceful failure of campaign reform during the last legislative session. That is either a lot of bull or Gunn is admitting he is a weak leader of the Mississippi House. Campaign finance reform unanimously passed the Mississippi Senate before being killed in the House without even a roll call vote. Pender’s excellent column pointed out our current campaign finance laws and how campaign expenses are reported are nothing short of “legalized bribery” paid for by lobbyists and other special interests. He wrote, “As long as they avoid tax scrutiny (reporting as taxable personal income), Mississippi politicians can spend campaign money in ways that would land them in jail in most other states.” Pender noted a Clarion-Ledger investigative series earlier this year showed “many politicians – legislators in particular – use lax campaign finance laws, farcical reporting regulations and nonexistent enforcement” to spend campaign donations “on clothes, cars, groceries, apartments,
The next local, legislative and statewide elections are not until 2019, but the train to raise campaign funds never slows down. Each week many current elected officials have numerous campaign events. It is expected candidates for statewide elected office, incumbents or others with statewide ambition, never slow their efforts to raise money. Most of the events for incumbent state legislators are held in Jackson. These events are not so the good folks back home can contribute to help their political friends or good candidates for legislative office get elected. Legislators from all over the state have campaign events in Jackson so they can tap the pockets of lobbyists and other special interest groups. There are several things that drive these events, even though the primaries are almost three years away and the 2019 general election is even further in the distance. One reason is more than a handful of legislators have ambition to run for statewide office. Even those who just plan to seek re-election to the legislature want to build a big war chest to discourage potential opponents. More important to some incumbent legislators is the fact that under our state’s pathetic campaign finance laws, elected officials frequently use their campaign contributions for personal, non-campaign related expenses. This unethical practice has been well documented by numerous articles written by Clarion.Ledger political editor Geoff Pender and others who write for that newspaper. Even if an elected official spends his or her campaign funds for personal expenses, under current state law all they have to do is report that part of their spending on their taxes as personal income. It would not be a stretch to say a lot of that personal spending is not properly reported when these elected officials file their federal income tax returns. The fourth reason for the endless off-year campaign fundraising events is what I will call the “ten percenters.” These are individuals and firms who make their living, or part of their living, as professional
It is no secret that incumbent State Treasurer Lynn Fitch is making noise about running for attorney general in 2019. On May 1, Clarion.Ledger political editor Geoff Pender, one of the state’s best journalists, wrote an early preview about the possibilities for the 2019 statewide races. He mentioned Fitch is said to be “all in” to run for AG. But at the end of his column about the 2019 contest for AG, Pender wrote something that had to make Fitch cringe. He said former AG Mike Moore and some other Democrats might feel that for Democrats, the AG’s race three years from now might be a “lost cause” for their party. Hood and his predecessor as AG, Mike Moore, might consider supporting Fitch. This is based on the assumption incumbent AG Jim Hood is testing the water to run for governor but is unlikely to seek a fifth term as AG. Given the scenario that some Dems think no other member of their party could win the 2019 race, there have been numerous reports that both Moore and Hood would support Fitch and she would welcome their support. In that event, Fitch would certainly solve a lot of fundraising problems in a statewide race for AG. Moore and Hood would be in a position to raise a lot of campaign money for Fitch from their trial lawyer buddies, both inside and outside of Mississippi. However, even quiet support from Moore and Hood would also be a very tricky situation for Fitch in a Republican Primary. With no incumbent running for AG three years from now, the GOP will have a very competitive primary. There’s little doubt Mike Hurst, the Republican nominee against Hood last year, is expected to be a candidate. There would certainly be other strong Republicans, such as Rankin County DA Michael Guest, who would enter the race. Fitch’s election as AG would certainly solve a personal problem for Fitch. Her current salary as treasurer is $90,000 per year. AG pays $108,960. That would almost be a $20,000 per year increase for Fitch. Along with State Auditor Stacey Pickering, Fitch has made it known that both of them are claiming they have a hard time making ends meet at their current salaries. For that, I don’t have much sympathy. They knew what the jobs paid when they ran for their respective offices. I have commented to several people that outside of some school administrators like superintendents and principals, there’s not one K-12 teacher in the state making $90,000 per year. Usually the
Clarion.Ledger got it right; besides being a disgrace, it is “legalized bribery”
The 2016 regular session of the Mississippi Legislature recently adjourned. The women and children of the metro Jackson area are safe for the time being. I think very few objective observers would give an overall high grade to legislators for this past session. However, there is no greater embarrassment than the fact that legislators left Jackson when the House shot down campaign finance reform legislation. The Clarion.Ledger’s outstanding investigative series correctly called the current campaign finance laws “legalized bribery.” The series reported that elected officials spent campaign money on cars, clothes, apartments, expensive boots, personal trips out of state, tax bills, insurance, home improvements and no telling what else. Most contributions to these campaign accounts used as a second income for public officials came for lobbyists or other special interests. Prior to the House refusing to pass campaign finance reform, the legislation unanimously passed the Senate. Don’t get the idea that the Mississippi Senate is full of ethical angels. There are many state senators who use campaign accounts for personal expenses but they apparently fell in line when the measure was supported by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and the publicity from the newspaper’s investigative series. A day before campaign finance reform died in the House, it was reported the House was going to negotiate with the Senate to come up with some kind of reform. It didn’t happen. What’s even worse is when the House killed the reform measure, they did it on a voice vote. While it only took a small number of House members, 13, to call for a recorded vote, only a couple members had the guts enough to stand up and call for the vote. You can also blame the weak leadership of House Speaker Philip Gunn for campaign reform dying in the House. Gunn is another legislator who apparently spends campaign funds for personal use. Comments by a number of House members were an embarrassment to that body. Jeff Smith (R-Columbus), a powerful committee chairman, said the Legislature should police their own campaign finances. That’s bad policing. According to political editor Geoff Pender, similar anti-reform comments were made by John Moore (R-Brandon), Mark Baker (R-Brandon), John Hines (D-Greenville) and Omeria Scott (D-Laurel). And note that Baker has also been reported as having an interest in running for state attorney general. That’s sad. Veteran Rep. Bill Denny (R-Jackson) said campaign finance reform needs to be studied. Why does something that is so wrong need to be studied?
Some would suggest that the most recent legislative session was one of the most partisan in recent history with Republicans having a supermajority in both the Senate and House.
The Clarion.Ledger’s “Public Office – Private Gain”
I have never hesitated to criticize journalists and since I started writing again I have taken a number of shots at The Clarion.Ledger. However, let’s give credit where a lot of credit is due. Last Sunday a special investigation by that newspaper’s political editor, Geoff Pender, and reporters Mollie Bryant and Kate Royals, contained an in-depth story entitled “Public Office Private Gain.” That and more is available in the CL’s online edition and we should expect more print stories about the issue next Sunday. It should be a must read by every taxpayer in our state. I’ll have more comments about this in a future post, but for now, congratulations to the newspaper and the three writers who are writing the series. Elected officials using their campaign contributions for personal use is nothing less than a complete disgrace.
Gil Carmichael, R.I.P.
I had met Gil Carmichael several times prior to his race against Mississippi’s political godfather, longtime and powerful Sen. James O. Eastland. I got to know him better when he spent most of one Sunday afternoon in 1972 at my home in Ocean Springs talking politics. At one point during that Sunday afternoon I told the Meridian Volkswagen dealer he should be spending his time campaigning on the Gulf Coast rather than chatting with me about politics. Little did I know in just a few weeks I would become Carmichael’s state campaign manager in his seemingly hopeless and longshot campaign against the powerful Eastland. Initially, Carmichael was kind of a throw away candidate for Mississippi Republicans. In the GOP primary for Eastland’s senate seat, Carmichael’s opponent was James Meredith. Yes, that James Meredith – the same Meredith who almost 10 years earlier had become the first black student to enroll at Ole Miss amidst riots, violence, and one of this state’s ugliest moments. In 1972 Republican leaders in Mississippi cringed at the thought of Meredith being the GOP nominee against Eastland. Thus Carmichael was drafted to run against Meredith. After polishing off Meredith in the
In reality, there is only one statewide race that will be competitive this November. That contest is between Republican challenger Mike Hurst and Democrat Attorney General Jim Hood. The seven other incumbent Republicans holding statewide office face only minor Democrat, Reform Party or Libertarian Party opposition. None of those races is expected to produce an upset. Hood easily defeated his Republican opponents in his three previous races for attorney general. Some Republicans feel Hurst could, by far, be Hood’s strongest opponent he has faced. There’s also a feeling Hood could be more politically vulnerable than he was in his previous races. Hurst was highly regarded when he was on the staff of former congressman Chip Pickering, and his reputation was enhanced as an assistant U.S. Attorney until he resigned to become the Republican nominee for AG against Hood. He did not have primary opposition.
Obviously Hurst must raise the necessary money to make a competitive race against Hood. That’s where incumbent Gov. Phil Bryant comes into play. When Bryant was elected governor, he was more or less in the big shadow of his predecessor, Haley Barbour. If Bryant goes full steam politically to support Hurst, he can do something Barbour could not do. Barbour was very successful in making sure that Republicans Al Hopkins in 2007 and Steve Simpson in 2011 had the financial resources to make a strong challenge to Hood. The efforts went for naught. Many Republicans feel if Bryant makes sure Hurst has similar campaign resources like Barbour gave to Hopkins and Simpson, 2015 could result in a different outcome for Hurst and Republicans. At the end of July Bryant had more than $2.8 million cash on hand for the general election against surprise Democrat primary winner Robert Gray. While no politician should ignore any political opponent, if Bryant spends only a fraction of his almost $3 million he will defeat Gray. Contrast this with Haley Barbour. Nobody has ever questioned Barbour’s capacity to raise huge amounts of campaign money, both for his own races and other Republicans. In 2007 Barbour had a well funded Democrat opponent in John Arthur Eaves. In 2011 term-limited Barbour was
Many races were decided by the August 4 first primary. The others will be determined by the August 25 runoff or November general election. Hopefully, when incumbent and newly elected state legislators return to Jackson in January of 2016, one issue won’t be neglected – Mississippi’s pitiful campaign finance laws. Those laws garnered attention before August 2 when Clarion-Ledger political editor Geoff Pender reported State Auditor Stacey Pickering was being investigated by the FBI for issues involving his campaign account. The issue of candidates using campaign contributions for personal rather than campaign expenses has also been raised regarding Attorney General Jim Hood, State Treasurer Lynn Fitch, and Sen. Will Longwitz. Make no mistake. This issue is far more widespread than just a handful of legislators or some statewide officials. In an excellent column the Sunday before the first primary, Pender wrote about what can best be described as legal fraud is allowed because of the state’s campaign finance laws. He wrote about Rep. Hank Zuber, a Republican from Ocean Springs, offering several bills to prohibit campaign donations from being used for a politician’s personal expenses. Somewhat tongue in cheek Pender said Zuber’s bills he has introduced during more than one session have been referred to the “Committee of the Azalea Bushes.” He added that Zuber’s bill also died in the “Tico’s Steakhouse Committee.” Tico’s is a Jackson dining and watering hole where many legislative souls have been bought with steaks and booze. During the 2015 legislative session, Zuber filed HB 169 which would make it unlawful for a candidate to use any campaign contribution for any personal reason unrelated to the candidate’s campaign. HB 169 was double refered to the House Judiciary A Committee and the Apportionment and Elections Committee. A double referral is used more often than not to make sure a bill is never reported to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote by all members. Judiciary A is chaired by Mark Baker of Brandon and the Apportionment and Elections Committee is chaired by Bill Denny of Jackson. Both are Republicans. Of course, HB 169 died in committee.
Dark Horse Mississippi nails two leading Senate Repubicans
Dark Horse Mississippi is a political blog that tilts to the left and favors Democrats. A couple of things about DHM bother me. The site hides behind anonymity. I think any blogger or anyone making comments on a blog that uses anonymity is gutless. If
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
While in Dallas recently, I received an email from a friend about an online post in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. The post was a teaser for political editor Geoff Pender’s upcoming Sunday, May 10 column. Pender said he would have an “inside scoop” on the 2019 Mississippi race for governor. I was obviously interested what the scoop would be. I speculated on a lot of the possibilities.
My first thought was if Phil Bryant and Tate Reeves are both re-elected, would Bryant endorse Reeves for governor in 2019? Nope, not much chance of that happening. Would Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann endorse Reeves for governor four years from now? Again, that speculation was obviously off the mark. Could it be Reeves would pass on running for governor in 2019 and instead volunteer to be Hosemann’s campaign finance chairman? That is also not very likely. Finally on Saturday night, I took leave for a few minutes from the party my wife and I were attending and checked The Clarion-Ledger online. Thankfully, Pender’s column for Sunday was already posted. With astonishment I learned that my classmate from Pascagoula High School, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, might consider running for governor four years from now.
Why don’t they like Lt. Governor Tate Reeves?
During the 2011 campaign when Reeves moved up to lieutenant governor from his job as state treasurer, a longtime Republican leader asked me, “Is Tate Reeves as smart as he thinks he is?” A more recent questioner also asked why some Republicans don’t like Reeves. My reply was that Reeves is both smart and tough. His response was, “And he’s a conservative.” My luncheon companion then noted that right-wing radio talk show hosts Paul Gallo and J.T. (Williamson) are clearly obvious in their dislike of Reeves. Super Talk radio even frequently runs a network promo that says, “It’s a sad day when Mississippi’s lieutenant governor plays politics with children’s and people’s lives.”