A new scheme has been exposed in Missouri, a state notorious for its lax oversight of elected officials.
Tim Jones, former House Speaker, has managed to create an endowment of sorts with $650,000 that was left over in his campaign coffers, The Star reported this week. Jones himself appears to be a beneficiary, and he seems to be having a fine time with his donors’ money.
The sleight of hand is to transfer the money to a political action committee, or PAC, then dole out the cash to favored causes or candidates. A related nonprofit also shields the money from scrutiny.
Confusingly, the PAC and the nonprofit are both called Leadership for America.
Don’t be fooled by the high-minded misnomer.
The money eventually was spent on golf outings across several states, on cigars and liquor, travel and all sorts of questionable ways to curry favors. By law, campaign cash cannot be shifted about in order to pay for personal expenses.
But the use of PACs and nonprofits muddies the trail to follow the money, raising ethical concerns.
Jones works for several conservative political organizations and is host of a St. Louis radio talk show.
A spokesman for Jones advises that the tactics being employed are a good way to do what he termed “coalition building.” We’ll call it what it actually is: ethically-challenged schmoozing.
Also left undisclosed are the board members of the nonprofit.
These should not be confidential matters. The people who donated to Jones’ campaigns did so believing that their dollars would be spent on his election. Surely they did not intend to fund whirlwind freebie weekends for unknown people to be wined and dined years later.
Jones is not the only ex-office holder creating such PACs for himself. Former Sen. Paul LeVota and former House Speaker Steve Tilley did the same thing with campaign cash. But they have not been found to be using their money on such questionable expenses, according to filing disclosures.
In time, more politicians might try to follow Jones’ lead, given the toothless nature of the Missouri Ethics Commission. The commission’s lack of investigatory powers often renders it ineffective unless someone files a formal complaint.
The legislature should revisit its 2016 campaign finance law, adding provisions to further limit contributions and spending by PACs and nonprofits created from leftover campaign cash.
But the only real way to clamp down will be to empower the ethics commission, providing funding to hire investigators and giving it the legal right to go after abusers of the public’s good trust.