Kempthorne SR.com: Bill reins in corporate gifts to Kempthorne

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Idaho

Bill reins in corporate gifts to Kempthorne

Measure would close legal loophole that lets him put over-limit campaign contributions into `office account'

BOISE _ Idaho's attorney general, secretary of state and House speaker want to stop Gov. Dirk Kempthorne from drawing on unlimited corporate contributions for everyday expenses.

The three officials easily persuaded the House State Affairs Committee on Wednesday to unanimously pass their bill, HB 777.

"We are very pleased with this vote," said Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

Added Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, "This is the right thing to do."

Kempthorne, who like th
e other three officials is a Republican, last month reported that he had received campaign contributions over the $5,000 limit from eight corporate donors in 2003. He justified them as donations to an "office account" to cover his expenses in office, which is not subject to campaign contribution limits.

When Ysursa asked Wasden to look into the issue, Wasden determined that current law contains a loophole, and recommended legislation to close it. Wasden told the legislative committee Wednesday, "The Bribery and Corrupt Influences Act is rendered meaningless by this `office account' language."

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, who helped sponsor the 1997 law that set the $5,000 limit, told the panel, "I know that was not the intent."

Kempthorne has vigorously defended his campaign finances. "We abided by the letter of the law," he said Wednesday.

But he also said he's likely to sign HB 777 into law, if it passes both houses of the Legislature.

"It would be difficult not to," he told the Idaho Press Club.

Some members of the House State Affairs Committee said they were troubled by the governor's campaign finance report, which showed thousands in contributions being spent on restaurant meals, travel, National Governors Association activities, flowers, books and a haircut.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, questioned why travel and other such expenses should be paid with campaign funds long after the election. Kempthorne has maintained for several years that he wouldn't run for re-election, but this week he began hinting that he might.

The governor also has been raising funds to pay off a campaign debt of nearly $200,000 from the last election.

According to his 2003 campaign finance report, the eight companies that donated to the "office account" -- after also donating to the campaign -- were Advantage Workers Compensation Insurance Co. of Utah, $5,000; Simplot Corp., $1,000; Hewlett-Packard, $2,500; Potlatch, $2,500; Qwest Corp., $2,500; Eli Lilly and Co., $1,000; and Avista Corp., $3,500.

After the issue surfaced in February, Avista asked for its money back.

Neil Colwell, Idaho lobbyist for Avista, said the utility never intended to exceed contribution limits. It agreed to donate the $3,500 to help pay for an inaugural dinner last year, he said.

"We were maxed out," he said, having already given the $5,000 limit to Kempthorne's re-election campaign earlier.

"We want to follow campaign laws to the letter," Colwell said. "If we can support the governor in some way that's beyond reproach, we would love to do it."

The issue "kind of caught us by surprise," Colwell said. "I didn't realize at the time that was being recorded as a campaign contribution, because we knew we were maxed out."

The other donors haven't asked for their money back, and HB 777, if it becomes law, wouldn't affect those contributions that already have been made. But it wouldn't allow any similar over-limit contributions in the future.

Former state Rep. Jim Hansen of Boise told the committee that Idahoans are increasingly suspicious about the role of money in politics. He pointed to this year's Boise State University public policy survey, in which 64 percent of respondents said they thought politicians made decisions based on large campaign contributions.

Hansen said that's "deeply troubling for me as a citizen," but he said, "It is, however, a logical consequence of an entirely privately funded system."

Those with business pending before the state are the same ones who give to support campaigns, he said.

Rep. Steve Smylie, R-Boise, said, "One thing that I think we all agree on is appearances matter in what we do, and there is too much negative perception. ... We have to be accountable. That's what the founding fathers had in mind."

Kempthorne's over-limit contributions have drawn extra attention this year because the governor has been crusading for legislation favored by some of the donors. A major telephone deregulation bill backed by Qwest, for example, narrowly passed the House after the governor strongly lobbied for it. On Wednesday, it cleared a Senate committee.

"That wasn't done because of contributions," Kempthorne said. "It was done because I think it's good public policy."

The governor also has pushed for legislative changes both in Idaho and Utah to accommodate Advantage, the Utah state insurance company. He said he's worked on that issue in order to bolster Idaho's workers compensation system and to work with his neighboring governor.

"I've been in public service nearly 20 years now, and my reputation is very important to me," Kempthorne said. "I think people respect the job I'm doing. I'm not going to jeopardize that by supplanting good public policy ... with a contribution from one company. That's not worth it. That's not why I'm in this business."

•Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854, or by e-mail at bzrussell@Rmci.net.


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