Mississippi politicians in recent years spent campaign donations on automobiles, apartments, clothes, children’s parties, groceries, taxes, car insurance, home improvements and trips to Alaska, California, Colorado and Florida, among other places. Some politicians have cashed in their accounts when they left office.
The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, prohibits personal use of campaign money, and defines personal use as any “other than expenditures relating to gaining, holding or performing functions of public office.” It specifically prohibits personal spending of campaign money including: mortgage, rent or utility payments for any residential property of a candidate or family member, clothing, automobiles, travel expenses not related to a campaign or holding office, admission to entertainment events and non-documented loans.
The final bill was a compromise between Senate and House proposals over the last two legislative sessions. It contains a mix of the Senate’s tougher restrictions on spending and what constitutes personal use, and the House’s stronger enforcement, to be overseen by the Ethics Commission. Campaign donations through Jan. 1 will be exempt from the new law.
Experts and political observers called Mississippi’s lack of rules and transparency on campaign finances “a recipe for ethical disaster” and “legalized bribery.” Campaign money is shielded from tax, ethics, bribery and other laws because it is ostensibly to be used for campaigning and records of it are supposed to be open to the public. But in Mississippi, neither has been the case.
Many politicians have sidestepped requirements that they even report campaign expenditures by using credit cards to make purchases, then reporting only the lump-sum payment to the credit card company on their public reports. The new law requires itemization of such purchases.