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Published January 27, 2012 1:01 am

Tighten ban on personal use
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah law prohibits elected officials from using campaign donations for personal purposes. However, it allows politicians to spend those funds "for a political purpose" or "to fulfill a duty or activity of an officeholder." As a Salt Lake Tribune report shows, that language gives officials too much opportunity to blur the line between campaigns and personal use. The Legislature should tighten the law.

Otherwise, elected officials will continue to spend campaign funds for rent, gym memberships, dry cleaning, travel souvenirs, computers and iPads, greens fees, clothing, luggage, wedding and Christmas gifts, church tithing. Some even pay relatives for campaign work in years in which there is no election. Indeed, the Tribune report showed that about one-third of so-called campaign spending last year, an off-year in the election cycle, went to things that can easily be construed as a personal benefit to the officeholder.

The reason for the ban is to prevent campaign donors — often lobbyists who represent special interests — from bribing lawmakers with campaign money that they can easily convert to personal use. But a prohibition that is full of holes is no prohibition at all.

Admittedly, every case is a judgment call. An official who buys a computer with campaign funds has a point when he argues that in the digital age, he's got to keep up with email, text messages, tweets and the Legislature's website to stay in touch with constituents and run a campaign.

But gym memberships and golf fees? Sorry. Luggage? Nope. Dry cleaning, rent, gifts? No, no, no.

Rent for a campaign headquarters? Sure.

Face it. "Political purpose" and "activity of an officeholder" are language that is simply too broad and too easily abused.

That is particularly true because in Utah there are no limits on campaign contributions. Anyone can give a candidate any amount. If a company or labor union wants to buy a legislator, it is free to do it.

That's why campaign contributions should be limited. Politicians who claim that they are not influenced by campaign gifts are either self-deluded or lying.

We would suggest a limit of $2,500 to legislative candidates per individual donor during an election cycle, and a $5,000 limit for political action committees. Further, candidates should not be permitted to create leadership PACs to donate to other candidates, thereby buying their allegiance in elections to become the top dogs in the House and Senate.

And tighten the ban on spending for personal purposes.




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