The case of Gov. Jim Gibbons' legal defense fund has opened up some new and interesting loopholes in the Nevada campaign finance law.
The defense fund in question was created to pay legal expenses Gibbons incurred fighting charges that he assaulted a woman in Las Vegas and hired an illegal alien in the 1980s, as well as the ongoing federal probe that he helped his friend land lucrative defense contracts. All of these accusations concerned alleged actions Gibbons took before he became governor, which puts the whole issue into a kind of legal limbo.
After some initially testy words with the new governor, Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller declared the fund to be legal, since it was "separate and distinct" from Gibbons' campaign funds.
Reading between the lines of the letter Miller wrote on this subject, he bemoans that there is no law governing such funds, and wants to seek legislation to fix the problem. It's also a good way to kick this controversial issue next door to the Nevada Legislature.
But until there is new legislation, Miller's interpretation leaves a loophole big enough to drive a Hummer through.
That got me to thinking, if I were a rich ex-junk bond trader/defense contractor and I wanted to help my favorite politician, how would I do it?
I could stick with the mundane items like paying his legal fees, or exceeding campaign donation limits by splitting up the money between different business entities. But if I really want to get him in my pocket, I may have to go a little further, to grease the wheels of good government.
Speaking of wheels, maybe I could start a "transportation fund" to lease my new best friend a Hummer to drive around in. That might be legal, just as long as the fund is "separate and distinct" from his campaign funds, and he doesn't drive it around while he's campaigning. I may have to also start a "parking fund" to pay for the two spaces he'll need to park that beast.
Or maybe I could start a "housing fund" to rent a beachfront estate at Lake Tahoe so my friend will have a place to escape to while he's here working on my pet projects. That multimillion-dollar view will do wonders to relieve the stress of public service.
Maybe I could create an "entertainment fund" to make sure my friend can get out to see some shows while he's in town.
Or how about a separate "naked fund" so he could visit the strip clubs and brothels, just to see how they operate, of course. Or a "travel fund" so my friend can see how strip clubs and brothels operate in places like Thailand. You can't have too much information when it comes to these kinds of businesses, you know.
How about a "medical fund" so my favorite politician can get a facelift or breast augmentation, whichever one floats his or her boat.
Maybe I would just need to hire someone to follow my friend around and buy him whatever he wants, making sure the money is "separate and distinct" from his campaign fund.
I always thought that it was illegal to provide an elected official with any kind of item or service of value that was not regulated by campaign finance laws. I assumed that if there were no laws concerning legal defense funds for elected officials, it meant that you couldn't have them. But Secretary of State Miller has shown that I was looking at the glass as half empty. How very quaint of me.
It would seem that funds like these would go against the spirit of the existing campaign finance and ethics laws. But I guess you can't convict someone for breaking the spirit of a law, or most of the Bush Administration and Congress would be in jail right now.
If only Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham had known how good things are in Nevada, they'd be here living the good life instead of watching their backs in federal prison.
If Nevada's campaign finance law is this toothless, as interpreted by the secretary of state, then why are we wasting money trying to enforce it? Maybe Miller needs to come out and tell the public just how bad the law is, and how it needs to be changed. Or maybe he needs to take another look at his interpretation before someone starts up an "auction fund" to sell our government to the highest bidder.
• Kirk Caraway is editor of http://nevadapolitics.com, and also writes a blog on national issues at http://kirkcaraway.com.