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Vincent Case 1st Major Test of State Campaign Fund Law

Times Staff Writer

Before the attorney general’s office accused him this week of using campaign contributions for his personal benefit, Mayor Edward Vincent expressed disbelief at the official attention focused on his campaign spending.

In several interviews, Vincent described his campaign fund as “my money.”

But under a 1981 state law, it’s not his money to spend any way he wants. The law says campaign contributions must be used for political or governmental purposes, not personal benefit.

The 1981 law does provide considerable leeway, experts said, and confusion sometimes arises--among officeholders and even enforcement agencies--over what constitutes personal use of campaign contributions.

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But they also said the conduct alleged in the attorney general’s suit against Vincent illustrates the need for the legal barrier between personal and political funds that was established only after intense debate. The suit alleges that Vincent spent more than $5,000 on travel, truck repairs, clothes and a veterinarian’s bill, among other things.

Vincent has declined to comment since the suit was filed Monday.

Robert Stern, head of the nonprofit California Commission on Campaign Financing, was a leader in the fight for passage of the personal-use prohibitions. In 1981, Stern said, outrage peaked over disclosures that politicians used campaign funds to pay for items such as divorce proceedings and video recorders. Some legislators even paid their campaign war chests to themselves when they left office, calling the transactions “retirement pay.”

In an attempt to force a reluctant Legislature’s hand, Tom Houston, then the chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, proposed a new FPPC regulation barring personal uses of campaign funds, to be enforced by the state commission.

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Legislators balked. The compromise that emerged was a somewhat weaker bill that provided for enforcement by the state attorney general, Stern said.

The law, Election Code Section 12401, prohibits campaign spending that creates a substantial personal benefit and “does not have more than a negligible political or legislative purpose.” It provides a fine of $500, or twice the violation, whichever is greater.

Tough to Prove

Successful prosecution requires that an officeholder’s misuse of funds be “willful and knowing,” a standard that investigators describe as tough to prove.

Indeed, the suit against Vincent marks the first prosecution of an elected official under the law. State officials are seeking fines from Vincent amounting to twice the more than $5,000 he allegedly misspent during the past two years.

In commenting on the Vincent case, Stern noted that previous investigations have ended with politicians being allowed to repay their campaign war chests for questionable expenses.

“First of all, most people comply with the law,” Stern said. “Second of all, the law is fairly generous. And finally, I think, when people are close to the line, the attorney general has been forgiving.”

Given that history--and the apparent reluctance of elected officials to prosecute other elected officials--the attorney general’s hard line on the Vincent case reflects what investigators termed systematic and clear-cut violations.

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“You are taking money out of the system that could be used for campaigns,” Stern said. “The idea was that if you couldn’t use the money for personal use, you wouldn’t raise it. Whereas if you could do it, people would be out raising money all the time.”

Stern noted that elected officials must disqualify themselves from voting on issues involving individuals who have given them more than $250 in direct gifts or income. However, he said, officials do not have to disqualify themselves in the cases of campaign contributors, no matter how much is given. They only have to report the contribution on campaign disclosure forms if it is $100 or more.

The suit against Vincent may help establish more concrete limits on how far elected officials can go, Stern said.

“Any time you bring an enforcement action,” Stern said, “you send a signal to others.”


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