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JACKSON • Mississippi politicians continue to personally profit from their campaign funds, new state filings show, a practice that’s illegal in many other states and at the federal level.

In November, Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney paid himself $30,000 from his campaign account. “Personal,” Chaney wrote as the purpose of the expenditure, according to his finance report filed last week.

Before he wrapped up a 16-year career in the state Senate last year, J.P. Wilemon, a Democrat from Belmont, pocketed $12,016 that was leftover in his campaign account, a filing shows.

Lawmakers passed campaign finance reforms in 2017 following embarrassing reports by the Clarion Ledger that showed how officials had spent donations on everything from children’s parties, to cars, to an $800 pair of cowboy boots. Yet a grandfather clause inserted into the legislation essentially let the unregulated spending continue – as long as politicians used money raised before 2018.

Millions of dollars’ worth of this old campaign money is still out there, according to annual reports recently posted on the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website. Politicians are required to report pre-2018 money separately from their newer campaign funds, assuming they want to take advantage of the lax spending rules.

The politician with the most pre-2018 campaign cash is Gov. Tate Reeves, with $1.9 million – money he could legally take for his own personal use at any time. He reported earning $13,384 in interest from the account last year, and did not report any expenditures except on taxes and an accountant.

Former Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat who challenged Reeves in the 2019 gubernatorial race, still maintains an active campaign finance account. He compensated himself more than $100,000 from the pre-2018 money last year, filings show.

According to Hood’s annual report, some of those self-payments were reimbursements for “Miscellaneous Campaign Expenses,” though he did not provide further details. Two $25,000 checks Hood made out to himself were described only as “Loan.” Hood did not respond to Daily Journal inquiries seeking more details.

Numerous lawmakers and state officials have saved up substantial sums in their old campaign accounts, a Daily Journal review of campaign finance reports found. They include:

  • Sen. Walter Michel, R-Ridgeland, $578,957
  • Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, $392,694
  • Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, $295,464
  • Jim Hood, former attorney general, former gubernatorial candidate, $252,240
  • Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, $175,419
  • Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, $143,329
  • Rep. Jason White, R-West, $124,770
  • Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, $124,537
  • Retired Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, $106,480
  • Sen. Rita Potts Parks, R-Corinth, $82,997
  • Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, $76,909
  • Rep. Scott Bounds, R-Philadelphia, $61,679
  • Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, $49,671
  • Rep. Mac Huddleston, R-Pontotoc, $47,702
  • Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, $40,161
  • Rep. Casey Eure, R-Saucier, $37,795

Most states and the federal government ban politicians from using campaign money for personal reasons. And if they have excess funds when they leave office, they must donate it to charity or another candidate.

But in Mississippi, politicians can keep it.

Wilemon told the Daily Journal he had pondered whether it was the right call to keep his remaining campaign money. The former banker concluded it was fair, given the work he had put in as an elected official.

“When you’re serving in the Mississippi State Senate, if you get out and work and try to help the people, you spend a whole lot more money than you take in,” Wilemon explained. “That was my thinking on it. When you’re going somewhere several times a week (as a senator) … you’re spending a lot of money that you wouldn’t spend if you were not in office.”

Chaney, the Republican insurance commissioner who has served since 2008, said he cut himself the $30,000 check last November for two reasons: One, he said he wanted to donate to candidates, including Democrats, without publicly disclosing it on his campaign finance report. If he gave the money personally, he explained, he would not need to report the donation. Secondly, Chaney said he wanted to pay for some home office expenses not covered by state taxpayer funds.

“You can do anything with the old money you want to,” Chaney told the Daily Journal.

Chaney said he doesn’t necessarily believe that’s how it should be – but it’s how “the powers that be” in the Legislature set it up, and he said he plans to play by those rules. He said he eventually intends to give away any leftover funds in his pre-2018 account to Mississippi State or Ole Miss.

Wilemon and Chaney aren’t the only ones to pocket their campaign funds in recent years. Attorney General Lynn Fitch gave herself $15,351 in 2019, and that same year former Rep. Greg Snowden cashed out $9,000 for his own personal use, as the Clarion Ledger first reported last year.

Nathan Shrader, a political science professor at Millsaps College, said it’s wrong for politicians to use campaign money for personal use, regardless of amount.

“This isn’t rocket science – this is basic honesty and ethics,” Shrader said. “Money is money. And we’re treating these pools of money as if they’re different things, for the benefit of certain legislators or elected officials.”

If someone runs for public office and raises money from the public to campaign, then turns around and uses that money as “a retirement nest egg, or to buy a camper, or snakeskin boots,” Shrader said, “that’s far afield from the public interest and the public good.”

Shrader said another problem with Mississippi’s campaign finance system is its general lack of transparency. The state database where campaign filings are posted is not user-friendly, he said, adding it should be easy for anyone to search for a politician or donor and find how much they have given or received over time.

But most of the state’s campaign finance system comprises PDFs that are not easily searchable. Numerous lawmakers continue to file their reports by hand, with handwriting that is frequently illegible.

Some politicians scan their reports or take pictures of them before sending them to state elections officials to post online, making them blurry and impossible to decipher.

And others don’t disclose even basic descriptions of their fundraising and spending amounts.

Secretary of State Michael Watson told the Daily Journal his office is currently overhauling the campaign finance database to make it more user friendly.

The Republican said his office has hired a contractor that is converting thousands of candidate reports going back several years into a format that is searchable. He said the new campaign finance website should launch before the summer.

A year ago, Watson said he planned to advocate for doing away with the pre-2018 money loophole in the state’s campaign finance law, possibly by forcing politicians to merge it with their newer campaign cash. But such a policy change would require approval from the Legislature – and many lawmakers have banked large amounts of the old, unregulated money.

Watson said Wednesday he has since talked with several lawmakers about his proposal of eliminating the loophole.

“They weren’t thrilled about the idea,” he said.

Luke Ramseth is a Jackson-based reporter covering the 2021 session of the Mississippi Legislature for the Daily Journal. Email him at lramseth@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @lramseth.

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