Keeping Politicians Honest

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A new Harvard study ranked Arizona as having the most corrupt government in the nation when it comes to illegal forms of corruption. Tom Collins, executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, will talk about keeping politicians honest.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to Arizona Horizon. I'm Ted Simons. A new Harvard survey of state house reporters ranks Arizona as having the most corrupt Government in the nation. Here to talk about the efforts to keep politicians honest is Tom Collins, the executive director of the citizens clean elections commission. Good to see you again. Good to have you. Before we get to this study, and all of this business of corruptness, corruption, let's talk about a ruling by a Federal judge regarding campaign, Arizona's campaign finance laws, and how much of an impact it's going to make on political campaigns, and on what you guys do.

Tom Collins: Sure. That's a good question, and folks reading the paper lately will know that on Friday, a Federal judge, and the district court of Arizona released an order where he declared a definition that's in the campaign finance, it defines the committee to be vague. What the upshot of the order was, is that there is a sentence in there that -- it's a very long sentence. Candidly, it's 183-word sentence, and he said that he does not think that an ordinary person can understand what that sentence is getting at. What that means is a couple of different things. We're still looking at the order, working with our attorneys to understand precisely what the impact is. But I can tell you a couple of things, first, you know, the state is going to appeal, and there is, you know, if you see the headlines or folks that say this is a change in the campaign finance law, the district judge's order is not a see change, the U.S. Supreme Court President controls campaign finance laws. So, and we already know that the disclosure laws and the kinds of things that Arizona campaign law does are constitutional. So, you know, the fact that the sentence is too long doesn't mean the system is under -- is suspect, if that makes any sense.

Ted Simons: So it does not necessarily mean that we could see future no disclosure requirements for raising and/or spending from political committees. It's just what is a committee?

Tom Collins: I think that's right. And I think that -- and I think that there is a good Avenue for appeal if the state wants to do that, and I think that the state will. But the legislative solution is equally simple. I mean, he said the sentence is too long. Well, it's very simple to break up the sentence. You do need to just put in a few periods and make it a little more simple. Have a few subparts. It will be a checklist of, if you are this, this is what happens, if you are this, that is what happened. What's happened right now with the way that the laws that are amended is that list is smushed together in one sentence. That's really what the case is about. So, the legislative solution is really simple. Our concern, I think, that the folks who work in campaign finance are really concerned is that this becomes used as an excuse to really do damage to the system that's unnecessary, you need a simpler definition. But, that still captures the same information.

Ted Simons: It is a moving goalpost for you guys. You need to figure out what exactly will a committee become before you start enforcing and looking over these things.

Tom Collins: That's a very good question. And there are laws to apply to committees, there are elections that clearly don't apply. I can give you two examples. The limits on campaign finance that apply to both non participating and participating people in the public finance program, so all state programs are covered by clean elections, and that applies to the candidate. It does not apply to the committee. We can enforce against the candidates directly. Likewise, with respect to independent expenditures, you hear about the dark money, and folks out doing those negative ads, and they will report to the clean elections, at least to what the expenditures are, and the clean elections act is plain, any person who makes an expenditure over a certain amount, has a collections report. And as Mitt Romney said, corporations are people, too, my friend so that means that we don't care if you call yourself a committee or a corporation or a trust or an unincorporated association or Joe Smith, if you make those expenditure, you owe us a report.

Ted Simons: So the definition is on a separate track as far as what you are concerned about.

Tom Collins: That's correct.

Ted Simons: And I still want to get to this Harvard study. You mentioned the fact that the candidates are -- whether they are clean candidates, participating candidates, or not. We saw that now with Tom Horne. Your thoughts on -- some folks thought he got off light and some folks thought your penal against the candidates, they were fine and that was not enough. How do you respond?

Tom Collins: I think that Ted, that's a good question, and I think that one of the things that the commission tried to establish over time is that these laws are designed to get the public information and to help root out corruption. So that's what the campaign finance limits are there for. That's what the disclosure obligations are there for. So in both cases, we thought, and I think the commission concluded that the conciliation in the Corporation Commission case, we got amended reports from those folks, we got them to pay a fine, and in Mr. Horne's case, because there were two investigations going on, both for us and through the attorney general's office, having referred it to the Gilbert town attorney, that the conciliation specifically says that he will have to make amendments to his campaign reform if ordered. He had to pay a fine. Mr. Horne argued that. If you think a $10,000 fine, paid personally by an elected official, for a violation of, you know, in a conciliation, is not -- doesn't have a deterrent effect on the behavior, I think that that's wrong.

Ted Simons: I was going to ask about that. It sounds like it's almost more information as opposed to deterrents.

Tom Collins: I think that we hit -- I think that we have hit the right level in terms of the deterrence going forward. I think that the next person who gets into his situation, if they feel like they are going to cut corners or try to abuse their office in some way, they are going to get scrutiny from clean elections that, I think, that is meaningful. I think that just trying to extract the maximum dollar fine, when there is so much else in the agreement in terms of the other investigation going forward, and in terms of the fine, itself, in terms of ratifying, if anybody had any doubt, the keep elections is there as an independent voice, to enforce these laws. I think the value that exceeds putting some dollar value on the purpose of the law is to get compliance, not to extract punishment.

Ted Simons: Let's get to the Harvard study ranking the most corrupt states. Arizona, number one, these are state house reporters that were surveyed here, number one, for officials trading favors for cash and gifts, I am assuming that there is a fiesta bowl element in here. But overall, what do you make of this? Arizona is the most -- Illinois, Michigan?

Tom Collins: Sure. And I think that, you know, if you look at the study, which I have read a bit about, and I do think that there is a reputational aspect here. You have -- if you are interviewing reporters and folks who know about Arizona, Arizona does have a history that's involved with corruption. Clean elections comes out of the voters' reaction, and which was the proverbial duffle bag cash. That was the real deal. So, that's something that happened in Arizona, and I think that kind of sticks around, and the fiesta bowl adds to it, so I think that what it tells us is that, you know, this is a real concern for the folks who were covering the legislature, and it's a demonstration of why having, you know, independent enforcement of anti-corruption laws is important.

Ted Simons: All right. Good to see you again. Thanks.

Tom Collins: Thanks very much, Ted.

Tom Collins:Executive Director, Citizens Clean Elections Commission;

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