Thursday, September 30, 2004

Secretary of State Kevin Shelley -- Our Enforcer of Campaign Finance laws?

Christian Berthelsen and Alan Gathright report in the San Francisco Chronicle that a former aide to California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley has accused him of illegally accepting a campaign contribution of $2,000 in his government office. The donor, who has verified the allegation, says that he went to Shelley's office to ask the Secretary of State for help with a tax matter.

California law has an outright ban on accepting campaign contributions in any governmental office building, punishable with a fine of up to $10,000.

This law is but one of many laws from around the country which are designed to attack the problems of Tammany Hall-style corruption. This one happens to do so in a spectacularly insufficient way, but it is a start in the same way that wearing a thong outside in the winter in Anchorage is a start.

The broader problem with these laws is that they deflect attention away from the more insidious buying of office by wealthy interests which takes place in the form of legal campaign contributions in the thousands of dollars. So, while Shelley may have committed a misdemeanor, which may be good cause for recall or resignation in the eyes of California voters, the greater crime against democracy is that Shelley got to office in the first place by taking huge contributions from wealthy folks (some of which, it turns out may have been illegally laundered.)

Without the massive influence of folks rich enough to give ten- or twenty-thousand dollars, Shelley very well may not have occupied the office in which he allegedly illegally accepted the $2,000.

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