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Prison for Jesse Jackson Jr.: a 2 1/2-year sentence

Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, leaves federal court in Washington on Wednesday. Jackson was sentenced to two and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to scheming to spend $750,000 in campaign funds on TVs, restaurant dinners, an expensive watch and other costly personal items. His wife received a sentence of one year.

Last week, an article I wrote about state Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, buying a 1987 Volkswagen Cabriolet with campaign funds generated a lot of commentary. Many commenters believed the article was making a mountain out of a molehill.

Regular commenter Richard Russell is a case in point:

“In related news, Hulsey has bacon and eggs for breakfast, but the eggs may have come from Illinois.”

There were many ways to interpret both The Capital Times and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel articles on the subject. On one hand, Hulsey’s decision to make such an unconventional purchase with half of his campaign funds was noteworthy, if not amusing.

But the incident also was an apt demonstration of how limited campaign finance regulations are in Wisconsin. There seems to be little that a candidate can’t buy with his campaign funds, as long as he has an explanation to give to the Government Accountability Board.

"If you can state a legitimate political purpose, that's usually enough for GAB to say 'all right,'" comments Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a campaign finance reform group. "There's really no follow-up or investigation."

As Wisconsin State Journal columnist Chris Rickert reports, it appears that restrictions on campaign fund expenditures are at least slightly tighter in Minnesota.

But where is the line drawn? Nobody seems to question that Jesse Jackson Jr. crossed the line by purchasing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of luxury goods with his campaign funds, including a $44,000 Rolex. For those offenses the former congressman from Chicago was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

While it is rare to see such extravagant expenditures listed on campaign finance reports, it is easy to see how a candidate for office can regularly treat himself to fancies that his public salary wouldn’t otherwise provide.

For instance, as much as Democrats have lampooned U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., for referring to himself as “struggling” on his $174,000 salary, the second term congressman, who provides for six children, probably wouldn’t regularly dine at the Capitol Club, a top hangout for D.C. Republicans, if he didn’t have campaign donors footing the bill.

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Last year Duffy ate at the swanky spot six times, spending a total of $1,024, according to Federal Election Commission reports. We are to presume that he was there meeting with campaign staff or wooing donors. But there’s little to prevent him from reporting an expense he made there for no other reason than a desire for a good steak or a night out on the town with pals.

Heck says that bills from fancy restaurants for “strategy meetings” are typical.

“I think that's the most common abuse of campaign funds but they'll say, 'Well, we had to talk so we went to a steakhouse,'” he says.

Federal Election Commission regulations distinguish between campaign-related expenses and personal expenses based on whether the expense would have taken place “irrespective” of the campaign (see page 51 of this candidate pamphlet). For instance, whether or not he is a candidate for public office, Duffy will regularly buy groceries for himself and his family.

Would he be eating at exclusive D.C. dinner clubs if he weren’t a candidate for Congress? Probably not.

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Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.