In Mississippi, retiring officials can pocket campaign cash

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Posted: Mar 20, 2016 8:22 PM
In Mississippi, retiring officials can pocket campaign cash

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — When former Mississippi Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck shut down her campaign committee in the closing days of 2013, she took a parting gift — the $158,342 remaining in the account.

Tuck had already withdrawn more than $103,000 from the account in late 2007 and early 2008, as she was going to work at Mississippi State University as special assistant to the president, initially making $160,000 a year.

She's hardly the only Mississippi official to cash out at the end of her career. An Associated Press review shows that of 99 elected officials who have left office in recent years, as many as 25 may have pocketed more than $1,000 when they closed their campaign accounts.

At least four others besides Tuck — who is now vice president of campus services at Mississippi State and didn't respond to the AP's requests for comment — took more than $50,000.

Mississippi is one of five states where withdrawals are legal so long as state and federal income taxes are paid, with no restrictions on how it's spent. A proposal to end the practice has consistently failed to win support from lawmakers, dying again this year without even a committee vote.

Experts say the practice makes campaign contributions perilously close to bribes.

"Your office is a public office and you should not benefit from it. You are personally gaining from your political office, and that is why they're giving to you. That's the fear," said Larry Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based group that seeks to reduce the influence of money in politics.

Tuck, a community college teacher who was raised by country store owners, wasn't wealthy. She faced scrutiny for taking loans, including $500,000 from well-known tobacco settlement attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs that she later repaid.

But she raised more than $3 million for her re-election bid in 2003, the most ever for a candidate for lieutenant governor, one of the most powerful posts in Mississippi's government. Tens of thousands apiece came from real estate agents, bankers, optometrists, nursing homes, electric utilities, insurers and hospitals. Tuck raised $360,000 in her final term from January 2004 to January 2008, but only $6,000 after saying she wouldn't run for office in 2007.

Mississippi's campaign finance records sometimes provide little clue about what happens to money after a candidate leaves office. Some just stop filing forms once they leave office without officially terminating their campaign committee. Many candidates close their accounts still showing cash on hand, providing no information about what happened to the money, though any disbursements over $200 are supposed to be disclosed.

House Speaker Tim Ford closed his account in 2003, showing a balance of $172,323. Ford died in 2015, and Stephen Holley, Ford's campaign treasurer in 2003, didn't return calls inquiring about what happened to the money.

Former House Transportation Committee Chairman Warner McBride said the $92,000 that disappeared from his account before he closed his committee was spent on an unsuccessful 2011 special election for northern district transportation commissioner. McBride said he didn't bother filling out disclosures, but provided bank summaries showing he drained his campaign account during the election period.

There is little oversight of the disclosures, and the secretary of state doesn't investigate if they are accurate. Little is done to pursue officials who stop filing disclosures. Unlike active candidates who fail to file, the Secretary of State isn't required to publish their names.

North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Virginia are the other states that still allow elected officials to pocket campaign money for personal use during or after their careers, based on a survey by the National Council on State Legislatures and AP research .

In South Dakota, former Gov. Bill Janklow took home $850,000 in 2011 as he was dying of cancer. His son told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader at the time that the family planned to give the money to charity after paying taxes on it.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who has said he doesn't intend to run for office again, reported more than $1 million on hand in January after his successful re-election bid. Spokesman Clay Chandler said Bryant doesn't plan to keep the money and will spend it on other Republican candidates and nonprofits.

"By the time his term ends, he does not anticipate having much campaign money left," Chandler said.

Mississippi's ethics law says public servants can't use their offices to seek monetary benefits except for their legal salary. But the law has been interpreted to exclude campaign accounts. Tom Hood, executive director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, said he was unaware people were helping themselves to such large sums.

"I don't know of any law that prohibits taking campaign money and putting it in their pocket, although it can raise some issues, depending on who the money is from and how much," Hood said.

Rachael Ring, a spokesman for Attorney General Jim Hood, Tom Hood's brother, said the most recent legal guidance on the subject is a 1978 attorney general opinion that said money converted to personal use would be taxable.

The opinion says campaign money not used for that purpose could present legal and ethical problems: "Simply put, a campaign contribution is not a gift to be used as a person may please."

Not everyone takes their leftover money. Gov. Haley Barbour, for example, converted his personal campaign account into a political action committee after his re-election in 2007 and mostly gave it to other Republican candidates, spending some on his own political expenses.

Some take only part of the cash. Former Secretary of State Eric Clark gave $40,000 to First Baptist Church of Brandon and took $55,000 for himself, what he called a "conservative estimate" of expenses he never recouped.

"If I had just wanted to pocket a bunch of money, I could have taken it all," Clark said. "That's how much I felt morally comfortable with."

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