The ethics of Ethics - Page 3

The ethics of Ethics: Campaign finance watchdog growls at a grassroots treasurer while cutting deals with professional handlers

She pointed out that the law does provide guidance, but read literally, it could mean exorbitant fines for the same slipup echoed through a whole season of paperwork. "I think it's a good thing to have the law," she said, but "some should pay the maximum amount and some should pay less."

"I'm happy to pay $250 to get it out of the way," Knee said. "This has taken so much of my time and energy." When asked about her audit experience, she replied, "I would never do this again. It totally discourages grassroots" campaigns.

A legal assistant for 25 years, Knee was not a professional accountant but did have experience doing some bookkeeping. "The IRS is like kindergarten compared to the Ethics Commission," she said.

David Looman, a professional treasurer who's currently managing about 10 campaign accounts and undergoing three audits by the Ethics Commission, agrees that the potential liability is a huge risk. "Twenty years ago when I started in politics in this town, nobody paid for a treasurer. Nobody had a lawyer. Nowadays you'd be crazy not to do both," he said.

The audits in Looman's cases involve small grassroots campaigns similar to the one Knee oversaw. "There's no good business principle for why these people should be audited," Looman said. "The fewer resources you have to employ, the more intelligent your decisions should be for how to employ them. Here they are auditing my $12,000 committee when there are clear miscreants running around."

Part of the Ethics Commission's charter calls for mandatory audits of all publicly financed campaigns, and St. Croix said the agency does as many random audits as resources allow. Last year, he recalled, more than a dozen were completed. With full financial backing, St. Croix said, he would audit all campaigns. He said, "It's funny. People know they're going to get audited and they still try to get away with stuff."<\!s>*

Next: what does the Ethics Commission need to rein in the most frequent and flagrant violators?