THE state Ethics Commission recently announced a settlement agreement with Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa. Scott agreed to pay a $3,000 civil penalty and make restitution in the amount of $8,273 after the commission found he had used campaign funds for personal use. The commission’s actions could have many state lawmakers looking over their shoulders, because Scott is hardly the only legislator suspected of such abuses.
The Ethics Commission found Scott used campaign funds to buy plane tickets for his children to join him at a legislative conference. In short, he turned a business trip into a family vacation, which is no crime, but then took things one step further by using campaign funds to cover the cost of his children’s travel.
Scott also used campaign funds to pay for maintenance of his personal vehicle, to pay for dry cleaning and to pay for new clothes. He used campaign funds to buy a cell phone. That last item is allowed — but only if the phone is used solely for campaign purposes. The settlement agreement notes the phone was the only phone Scott owned, meaning he was using it for personal use too. Likely as not, the phone was used primarily for personal use, yet it was funded by campaign donations.
Finally, the commission found Scott used campaign funds “to pay for expenses for which he had already received per diem reimbursements from the State of Oklahoma for travel and lodging during legislative session.”
Scott isn’t the first lawmaker caught misusing campaign funds. One of the most notable cases occurred in 2006, when then-Rep. Dennis Adkins, R-Tulsa, was caught using campaign contributions to pay rent to himself for a condominium he had bought in Oklahoma City. Adkins had borrowed $109,000 from a bank to buy the condo. He then leased it to himself and made those payments with per diem money and campaign funds. When that arrangement came to light in September 2006, Adkins had reported spending about $7,000 a month in campaign and office expenses — even though he was re-elected without opposition that year.
Even at the Legislature, Adkins’ actions were unusual. On the other hand, Scott’s actions may not be. Many other lawmakers are routinely alleged to have engaged in similar activity, effectively treating campaign donations as a source of personal income to cover routine expenses ranging from meals to clothes to vehicles.
In the settlement agreement with Scott, the Ethics Commission notes that a “but for” test is used to determine if a campaign expenditure is legitimate. If an expense would not be incurred “but for” the fact that an individual serves in public office, it is considered a valid use of campaign funds. But if the purchase would have occurred regardless of an individual being an elected official, it’s not. Reportedly, a number of lawmakers may be toeing that line. There’s reason to think Scott won’t be the only lawmaker whose campaign spending is scrutinized by the Ethics Commission.
Politicians who solicit donations for campaigns, but then use the money for personal benefit, undermine public confidence in the integrity of elected officials. The Ethics Commission deserves praise for cracking down on those who would game the system, even for relatively minor monetary gain.