Need campaign spending reforms in wake of Santos

Let’s hope that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s awkward comments this week mean that the House Ethics Committee will be imminently digging into the case of Rep. George Santos, even if the probe hasn’t started yet.

When CNN asked on Tuesday whether Santos was under investigation, McCarthy answered “yes” and said that the committee is “moving through.” Later, a spokesman said there wasn’t an investigation because the committee hadn’t organized yet. The semantics are frustrating. But what’s clear is that there’s plenty of troublesome Santos material to sift.

What’s just as clear is that our political system needs more safeguards, top to bottom, to discourage questionable campaign finance behavior from others.

Consider the activity of the state-level Rise NY PAC, a group launched in early 2021 and operated by the congressman’s sister, Tiffany, which made two payments of $2,600 each in 2021 to a woman named Nancy Pothos. Newsday reported last week that Pothos owns a home in Whitestone where Santos lived and where he paid — you guessed it — $2,600 a month in rent.

State law is vague about using political money to make a payment like this. Determining whether funds were misused depends on more information than the PAC used to explain these expenditures: “Professional Services.” But what we do know is that as of Thursday, more than a year after the original expenditure, this filing had not yet been reviewed by the compliance unit of the state Board of Elections.

On the federal level, Santos has made liberal use of the rule that campaign expenditures under $200 don’t require receipts, invoices, or canceled checks. He logged dozens of such payments for the likes of restaurant meals and Ubers, raising questions about the purpose of certain expenses, exactly what was paid for, and what was given in return. Former House member Lee Zeldin, with whom Santos shared a treasurer, also disclosed a run of $199.99 expenditures in an earlier congressional race. Zeldin’s former campaign manager explained the amount as an accounting tool, and Santos has tried to avoid responsibility for his federal filings. But the fact remains that the $200 threshold gives candidates plenty of room to operate without backing up their actions on paper.

Maybe it’s time to shift the threshold down. That would mean changing the statute set by the Federal Election Campaign Act and tightening the limits. In New York state races, expenditures all the way down to $50 need to be separately disclosed, and campaign treasurers need to keep documentation of every expenditure. And let’s speed up the oversight of campaign money. What if filings that show a certain amount of dollars in undisclosed expenditures were to trigger an automatic audit?

Donors and voters deserve to know that their contributions go directly toward the policy or politics they want as opposed to the lifestyles of political candidates.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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