The most controversial question arising from the Sept. 2 arrest and continuing federal fraud probe of campaign treasurer Kinde Durkee may in the end be the easiest one to answer: Should candidates be able to request additional money from donors who have already contributed the maximum amount allowed by law?
Of course they should — if those earlier contributions never actually reached their intended campaigns or are otherwise unavailable for use because they are frozen pending the outcome of various lawsuits. The candidate may have asked for money, the donor may have given it, but now, neither actually has control over it. The donation hasn’t really been made until the litigation is completed or settled, the committee account is unfrozen and the money is either returned to the donor or forwarded to the candidate.
Durkee worked for years as campaign treasurer for dozens of Democrats and a few Republicans running for Congress, both houses of the Legislature and many municipal offices. As elected officials and candidates who were her clients learned that donations entrusted to her may have been moved from committee to committee and from bank account to bank account, many tried to claim their funds. But the bank that holds the accounts froze the assets and invited claimants to sue so that a court could sort out what money truly belonged in which account and to which committee. The litigation is expected to take years.
Campaign finance laws restrict the amount of money any candidate can raise from any donor for each election. For example, no single contributor can give anyone more than $3,900 for a campaign for the June 2012 election for Assembly or state Senate. Lawmakers and rule-makers have to decide whether a donor who has already maxed out can now give another $3,900 to a candidate whose current treasury is frozen. Of course, in any such case the original contribution should be returned to the donor once it is unfrozen. No candidate should benefit from contributions above the per-donor limit.
One argument against allowing additional donations is that elected officials already must feel beholden to people who gave them money, whether or not they actually get to use it. Why allow the same donors to purchase additional access? But donors also give because they believe in particular candidates and want to do what they can to help them win. Through no fault of their own, their earlier donation effort failed. Now, if they want to give again, they should be able to and, with time, luck and the end of litigation, be reimbursed for the money that they thought they were giving earlier but that Durkee is accused of misusing.