Campaign reports filed last year by state Sen. Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, have triggered an ethics complaint that could land him in some hot water.
The problem is not only what is in his reports, but also what is missing.
In March, Jonesboro conservative activist Bob Hester filed an ethics complaint against Bookout for his failure to itemize expenses on his report. State law requires candidates to itemize expenses of $100 or greater. But Bookout had over $50,000 in expenditures unitemized and listed only in broad categories. It is possible Bookout is just a bad bookkeeper,but the plot thickens upon examination of his report.
The largest of the unitemized expense categories is entertainment — almost $30,000. In the last few months, his campaign spent about $5,000 a month on entertainment. Campaigning can be expensive, but here is the kicker: Bookout was unopposed in 2012.
It seems an unopposed candidate could get by with spending very little — perhaps enough to cover the filing fee and victory party. But with $80,000 in campaign contributions, much of that from lobbyists, political action committees and businesses with interest before the Legislature, I suppose a candidate could operate under the heading, “if you’ve got it, spend it.” That is both legal and normal, but with certain caveats.
Incumbents often enjoy the dual advantage of a full campaign coffer and an unopposed race. But even so, Bookout was still required to report how he spent campaign money, which he did not fully do if any expenses fell under the requirement to itemize expenditures of $100 or more. If all Bookout’s $50,115.76 in unitemized expenses were less than $100, then he is in compliance. That would mean he made at least 500 transactions, which puts expenses in the “hard-to-believe” category.
The Arkansas Ethics Commission is investigating the complaint, but one problem it faces is that campaign laws are written by the people they seek to regulate – the state Legislature. That would explain why hearings on complaints take place behind closed doors.
The Jonesboro Sun, which has been on top of this story from the get-go, had to rely on Hester for a report on the hearing. Hester was allowed in the room since he filed the original complaint. According to his report, things may be even bigger than he originally thought. For one, the commission said it is not only looking into whether Bookout failed to itemize his expenses correctly but whether he also mixed campaign funds with personal funds and whether he used campaign funds for personal use. Perhaps most disturbing was Boookout’s failure to provide receipts for his campaign expenses to the Ethics Commission.
Shortly after the complaint was filed, Bookout told the Sun he had the receipts and would do whatever he needed to do to comply. Yet, at the hearing, his attorney, state Senate colleague Robert Thompson, said Bookout did not have them. I have asked Thompson and Bookout if they could open up those receipts and clear the air, but they have declined, at least until after the investigation is complete.
The Ethics Commission has 150 to 180 days to resolve a compliant, which means the March complaint will have to be acted on by August or September. Even so, Bookout needs to come forward with details of his expenses. If he really was spending $5,000 a month on an extremely entertaining unopposed campaign, then he needs to prove it.
And if $50,000 seems like small potatoes, think about this: Former state Treasurer Martha Shoffner went down for allegedly taking $36,000 hidden in pie boxes from a bond broker. Is it any better to take money from a campaign chest instead of a pie box?
Reportedly Bookout offered to repay $48,000 to his campaign at the ethics hearing, but that seems like offering to make amends after getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
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Jason Tolbert writes for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock.