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Monday, February 16, 2009

When Being a Self-Serving Prick Is THE LAW

Posted By on Mon, Feb 16, 2009 at 6:58 PM

As you've no doubt heard by now, city councilor Patrick Dowd is indeed running for mayor, as was foretold

Our Wednesday issue will include a discussion with Dowd himself. But for now, I have to say that his campaign got off to a bad start with this piece in the Post-Gazette. The story concerns the use of campaign money for things like Super Bowl trips and other expenses that don't seem directly related to actually getting elected. Dowd, pondering a trip to Europe, is quoted thusly:

"If I want to have a good Belgian beer, that doesn't count as political or governmental work."

I don't have a problem with Dowd's interpretation of campaign-finance laws. As the P-G makes clear, you're supposed to use campaign money to win elections ... and clearly nobody drinks Belgian beer hoping to win the support of Pittsburgh voters, except maybe in a few East End precincts that are going to vote for Dowd anyway. Also, Dowd has less than 5 grand in his campaign treasury. That only buys you like two rounds at the Sharp Edge.

No, it's Dowd's apparent fondness for Belgian products that outrages this blog

And of course, there is a larger and thornier issue to ponder. 

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is quoted telling the paper, "In some cases I've decided to use campaign funds rather than city funds to do some traveling, because I think it's clean, it doesn't use taxpayer dollars. I think everything that we've done has been to promote me, to promote Pittsburgh and talk about upcoming campaign events or what we're trying to do in the city."

Some critics have taken this to be a sign of Ravenstahl's hubrisL'etat, c'est moi, as they might say where Pat Dowd gets his beer. To P-G House Blogger Chad Hermann, Ravenstahl's remarks  prove that "Attention to the mayor and his political career come before dedication to the city and its future"

But here's the thing: Campaign finance law all but requires Ravenstahl to emphasize himself above the city during such trips (or at least during his recounting of them). He has to say that puffing himself up was the main reason for taking his trips. After all, state law says very clearly that campaign money can only be used "for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election." So ... the one thing Ravenstahl can't afford to be is modest.

If he admitted that his trip down to the Super Bowl, say, was an utterly selfless chance to tout the city's position on the threshhold of a new tomorrow, he'd be in big trouble. If he says he went down there to get a photo op with Snoop Dogg in hopes of connecting with younger voters, though, he's golden. The law basically requires him to act like a self-aggrandizing prick. 

Anyway, for me the most wince-inducing line in the whole P-G story belonged to City Council President Doug Shields, who said he 

also used the war chest to cover local parking tickets -- some of which he said were wrongly written while his car was parked in his free, official space next to the City-County Building. "I wouldn't be getting them if I wasn't a politician," he said.

This doesn't sound like the most compelling explanation I've ever heard. On the other hand, Shields could argue that having a bunch of unpaid parking tickets would hurt his election chances. So paying those tickets off might arguably be a viable use of campaign funds. 

Which just shows how easy it is to stretch campaign-finance law to cover almost any expense you want. 

The more you think about it, the knottier a problem it is. On one hand, we don't want city tax dollars to fund the mayor's good time down in Florida, right? I mean, if Ravenstahl had taken our money and then showed up with Snoop, you'd be really pissed, wouldn't you? But on the other hand ... if campaign-finance money can cover just about anything, that opens up a huge loophole in ethics laws. If a business exec gives you airfare and free luxury accommodations in Amsterdam, it's a bribe. If the business exec gives your campaign a $20,000 check and you use that money to book your own trip, though, it seems to be perfectly legal. 

So the dividing line isn't clear. The P-G notes that some politicians used campaign money to go the Democratic National Convention last year. That seems like an entirely self-serving junket -- one whose only purpose could be to peddle influence and rack up contributions  from a bunch of glad-handing pay-to-play party hacks. In other words, a perfectly acceptible use of campaign-finance money!

But even there, the rules are murky. For example, if you go to a strip club by yourself whilst at the convention, you should pay for drinks out of your own pocket, right? But if you go with an important committeeperson, it might constitute a valid campaign expense, might it not? And what if the stripper her/himself is related to a constituent in your district? (Members of the "Pittsburgh Diaspora" are everywhere!) Is the $20 you tuck in the G-string really any worse than the $200 you give to a fellow politician's campaign? (A frequent, and entirely legal, practice.)

One wants a brightline standard in these matters, because as we've seen, blurry lines get stretched to the limit around here. But as long as politicians are funding their own campaigns, it's hard to see how the law will ever be able to distinguish shady-and-illegal uses of campaign money from shady-but-legal uses. 

Maybe the only answer is to take politicians out of the equation entirely, and fund all election campaigns publicly. Maybe elections are too important to leave in the hands of candidates.

Pat Dowd could start his campaign running on that

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