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Diligence needed on campaign reports

Hartsell’s finance reports incomplete but may be legal

The N.C. Board of Elections has opened an inquiry after campaign finance reports show N.C. Sen. Fletcher Hartsell Jr. used nearly $100,000 in campaign money to pay off debts on personal credit cards. That’s an eye-popping sum, but it could turn out to be perfectly legal.

Kim Strach, deputy director of campaign finance at the state Board of Elections, said Hartsell simply might “not have understood” he needed to itemize purchases he paid for with the credit cards.

Trouble is, Hartsell told the News and Observer last week he could not promise that he had not illegally used some campaign money for personal expenditures. He could not even provide detailed documents about the expenses.

“I am not going to say there is not some instance that could be characterized one way or the other,” he said. “Most of these things are a blended issue.”

But they shouldn’t be. Hartsell should know that. And since he signed his own campaign finance reports attesting that the forms were “true, correct and complete” and that he had been trained in reporting requirements, he should have been diligent about ensuring that the reports were accurate.

Hartsell said he thinks his credit-card spending – which provide broad explanations for spending but not specifics as required by law – was “primarily” associated with his public office, mostly for travel, gas and meals related to being a state senator, expenses that are allowed under campaign laws.

The law is too loose in that regard, and legislators may want to revisit that issue. There’s really no reason why non-campaign expenses should be allowed as campaign expenses. And if state campaign laws want to really foster transparency, they should not muddy the lines between what is an actual expense and what is not.

Hartsell is generally respected on both sides of the aisle. We’ve praised him for his efforts on tax reform and other issues. We hope this turns out to be a lapse in attentiveness that won’t be repeated. He said he will repay any spending deemed invalid.

Still, North Carolina is all too familiar with the many failures to adhere to these reporting laws over the last few years. Former Gov. Mike Easley paid a $1,000 fine and lost his law license for failure to report a 2006 helicopter ride to his hometown to attend a fundraiser for another candidate. The flight was worth $1,600 and should have been reported on a 2006 report or on an amended 2009 report. The Elections Board fined Easley’s 2004 campaign $100,000, and former Gov. Bev Perdue’s 2008 campaign $30,000, for various flight-related or reporting failures. Other Perdue supporters or aides have also been charged in campaign-finance cases.

These cases have left North Carolinians cynical about the honesty of N.C. politicians. That’s why it is vital for lawmakers, politicians and campaigns to be diligent about the truth and accuracy of campaign finance reports. Ignorance of the law or laxity in completing the forms is not acceptable.

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