JACKSON • Former Mississippi Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall was already retired from public service by last year, but he continued spending a significant chunk of campaign cash accumulated over a long career in elected office.

He used campaign funds for personal expenses such as phone bills, a storage unit, a hotel room, groceries and “Wine & Spirits.”

In January — about a year after his last day on the job — the Republican terminated his campaign account, which still showed a balance of $106,479.85. In his final report to state elections officials, he did not specify what he would do with the leftover money.

“I’m going to be able to spend this money however I want to spend it,” Hall told the Daily Journal this week. “Some of it is going to be able to go to charities, it already has. But I’m going to be able to have that flexibility."

Loopholes persist in state campaign finance laws

Hall’s actions highlight two loopholes in the state’s notoriously loose and confusing campaign finance laws. First, politicians can legally use their campaign funds for personal reasons as long as it’s money they raised before 2018, when reforms took effect banning the practice. Many veteran lawmakers and other politicians have large sums of this old rule-free money stashed away, as the Daily Journal has previously reported.

The second loophole — which has never before been publicized — allows a politician to stop filing disclosure reports with the Mississippi Secretary of State even if they have funds remaining in their campaign account. This means the public might never learn what a candidate or politician does with hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars in leftover campaign cash, even though the law suggests they’re not supposed to touch it.

“There is no requirement that disbursement of all remaining funds be made before a termination report may be filed,” Kendra James, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Michael Watson, confirmed in an email.

A ‘messed up’ law

The law’s language and guidelines around Mississippi’s campaign finance reporting don’t line up. On a campaign finance reporting form provided to candidates by the state — as well as the “2021 Campaign Finance Guide” posted on the secretary of state’s website — it says candidates must have “zero cash on hand” if they want to stop reporting financial information.

Yet the law itself does not include this “zero cash” requirement. Instead it says a candidate can terminate their reporting duties if they have no outstanding debt, and will no longer receive or disburse money from their account.

A separate section of the law — which addresses money raised since the reforms took effect in 2018 — says politicians can terminate their reporting obligations and leave the leftover money in the campaign account. This suggests the money must stay in the account untouched.

James said if a politician or candidate starts using this leftover money again after terminating their account, they would be required to file a new report with the secretary of state.

“This is the most messed up statute I’ve ever dealt with,” said Tom Hood, executive director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, referring to the state’s campaign finance laws. “You’ve got a couple different sections that are very confusing and seem to conflict with each other.”

Hall says he ‘followed the law to the letter’

Hall has spent at least some of the money that was still in the campaign account when he filed a termination report — and he plans to use the rest.

The former highway commissioner said he moved $10,000 of his campaign funds into his tithe account, which he uses to make donations to his church and other nonprofits such as the Boy Scouts and the Special Olympics. The remaining $96,000 or so is now in his personal bank account, he said, and he’s not sure how he’ll spend it.

“As best I know, I have followed the law to the letter,” said Hall, who represented the Mississippi Transportation Commisson’s central district since 1999, and previously served the Mississippi House and Senate.

He added he doesn’t plan to file another report with the secretary of state, despite making disbursements from the campaign account to himself since he terminated.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s terminated,” Hall said of his campaign account. “I honestly reported where (the money) was on the date of that termination.”

Hall’s wife, Jennifer, handled his campaign finance reporting. She said she would have filed her husband’s campaign finance termination report sooner, given he retired a year ago, but the couple was distracted with an illness and the pandemic. She said she had followed the law, noting pre-2018 money can be used to pay for anything, including personal expenses.

“I’ve always gone above and beyond to report everything that needs to be reported,” Jennifer Hall said.

Loophole means less public reporting transparency

Most Mississippi politicians zero out their campaign finance accounts before filing their termination report with the secretary of state, revealing how they spent any leftover money.

Some report giving to charities or other candidates and political causes, as they are allowed to do with newer campaign money. And some closing their old pre-2018 campaign accounts spend the money on personal items — or simply cut themselves a check — a practice that’s illegal in many other states and at the federal level.

Numerous politicians still have tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting in their old pre-2018 accounts. Gov. Tate Reeves has the most saved up, at nearly $2 million. The ability to terminate their reporting obligations with money still sitting in the account raises questions about whether many of these Mississippi politicians — similar to Hall — could pocket the leftover money yet never reveal they had done so in a public filing.

Hood, the Ethics Commission director, said it’s “absolutely” time for lawmakers to fix the state’s campaign finance law, including closing the loophole allowing politicians to terminate their account with leftover money still in it.

“You’ve got a couple sections of the law that seem to conflict with each other, and that conflict needs to be resolved,” 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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