Friday, August 12, 2005

Nebraska Regent to Face Possible Impeachment for Campaign Finance Violations

As Kevin O'Hanlon of the Associated Press writes in the Yankton Press & Dakotan (free registration required), Nebraska Board of Regent Member David Hergert may face impeachment by the state legislature for violating Nebraska's law governing its publicly financed elections. In June, the legislature gave Hergert 60 days to resign for the violations. That period ends today.

Like many systems of public financing, Nebraska's provides candidates with more funds if their opponents pass certain threshold amounts of spending. This allows candidates to compete with big spenders. Nebraska law requires candidates to estimate their spending to determine how much their opponents should get. If a candidate exceeds that estimate, they must notify the Accountability and Disclosure Commission so that their opponent can receive the additional funds.

Hergert underestimated his spending by half and failed to disclose it to the Commission. His opponent was not only subjected to attack ads bought with the excess funds, but was deprived of the public funds he might have spent to defend himself. In other words, Hergert won the election by cheating.

While there is some disagreement over whether impeachment is an option to kick someone out of office whose illegal behavior occurred prior to getting into office, the Nebraska Legislature deserves kudos for its 31-0 vote asking Hergert to resign. Without stiff penalties, cheats would just factor in the fines they had to pay as the price of getting into office.

Arizona's system of public financing encountered a similar, although slightly different problem. Rep. David Burrell Smith agreed to a voluntary spending limit as part of his receiving public funds for his campaign, but overspent the amount by as much as 30%. The AZ Clean Elections Commission voted to remove him from office per the law of Arizona. Burrell Smith is currently raising money to fight the ruling.

Folks who believe in democracy should take heart from the events in Arizona and Nebraska. Not only are there viable solutions available to counter the influence of wealth in politics, but there are people willing to fight to defend those solutions and to preserve the promise of democracy in America.

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