OPINION COLUMNS

Transparently unclear; Campaign finance trail hard to follow

By Messenger Staff | Published Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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Campaign finance reports are required by state law, but there’s no formal check to ensure they’re filled out accurately and honestly.

It’s important for candidates at all levels to reveal who is supporting their campaigns through monetary donations, but there needs to be a system in place to check these reports and hold candidates accountable if they’re filled out incorrectly.

The current system hints at transparency, but there’s no follow through, which has been especially troubling at the local level this election season.

Here’s how it works:

Local candidates turn in campaign finance reports, as required by the Texas Ethics Commission, to the Wise County Elections Office. The elections administrator has no authority over these forms; the office is merely a holding place.

The forms are notarized before being turned in, but again, it’s not the notary’s job to verify what’s in the report. The notary’s stamp simply indicates the signature of the candidate is authentic. The candidate signs the form swearing “under the penalty of perjury, that the accompanying report is true and correct and includes all information required to be reported …”

The problem is no one verifies the information in the reports. In fact, no one other than the Wise County Messenger regularly reviews the local reports, aside from the random individual or a disgruntled opponent.

The Messenger, like most other newspapers across the nation, reviews the reports to hold candidates accountable and make sure they’re transparent in their reporting.

But why are newspapers the only entities reviewing these documents? If it’s state law to turn them in, shouldn’t there be a check to ensure it’s done properly?

The Messenger has published two articles (Jan. 31 and Feb. 7) detailing the information in the candidates’ campaign finance reports.

Troubling information from the local reports includes:

  • A candidate reported a $200 and a $400 donation as “anonymous.” Not reporting the source of a contribution is prohibited by the Election Code.
  • A candidate reported only $383 in expenditures between the two reports. None of those expenditures document what has been spent on signs, as seen around the county, or in advertising with this very paper.
  • A candidate listed in-kind donations, which means goods or services were given to the candidate’s campaign. In this case the candidate listed the monetary value, but not the actual items donated. The report requires both. And to make matters worse, the candidate listed the “in-kind donation” on both reports. It should have been listed on the report covering the time period in which it was received.

Other information that gets murky is the use of personal money. Candidates are allowed to use personal money, but how is that to be reported? Some candidates list it as a donation to their own campaign, some list it as a loan to their campaign, while others simply list it as personal money spent. There needs to be one way to report the use of personal money for better comparison.

The point of campaign finance reports is to be transparent in the collection and spending of campaign money, but the current system has only muddied the waters in this Wise County election.

It’s time to put a formal check in place.

To read the articles referenced in this editorial, go to wcmess.com/campaignfinance.

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