In his latest campaign expenditure report, Searcy police chief and candidate for state representative Kyle Osborne reported a $400 expense for “rent.” The address given leads to an apartment complex in Searcy.
State ethics laws regarding the use of campaign funds for explicitly personal reasons are fairly clear — it’s a no no. However, the ethics commission reserves the right to determine whether or not expenses are for “personal use” or for campaign use.
The following paragraph is included in the ethics commission’s guidelines for campaign expenditures under Section 209, “Personal Expenses – Prohibited Uses:”
(c) Mortgage, Rent and Utility Payments – This includes any payments with respect to a personal residence of the candidate or his or her family, even if a portion of the residence is used by the campaign. It does not include (i) payments made by a candidate with respect to other buildings or offices or office space used solely for campaign purposes, such as the campaign’s headquarters, even if the candidate owns the space used, so long as the space is not the candidate’s personal residence and the campaign pays a fair market value for use of the space;
My interpretation of this law is fairly simple: campaign funds can be used for rent as long as the space is used exclusively for campaign purposes. If any part of the space is used for personal residence or purposes, campaign funds cannot be used.
I called the ethics commission and requested some clarification on these guidelines. They said my interpretation was more or less correct and that there are some circumstances in which using campaign funds for rent could be permissible, so long as the funds were not used for personal use. The determination as to whether or not an expenditure is for “personal use” or “campaign use” is an interpretation the Arkansas Ethics Commission reserves the right to make, per Section 210.
One possible explanation for the expense listed on Osborne’s report is that the apartment is being used to house campaign workers. Osborne has hired the Markham Group (he paid them $3,800 last month) out of Little Rock to run his campaign. Perhaps he is paying for an apartment for them to sleep in and stage their campaign out of. This would be somewhat of a gray area and the ethics commission would have to make a ruling about whether or not this qualified as “personal use” or “campaign use.”
If the funds were being used for a campaign office or for official campaign purposes, we might expect to see the expenses recur on Osborne’s monthly filings — he has been campaigning and reporting campaign expenses for several months. But we do not. Unless I am missing something, this rent expense is only shown on the September report.
So what is the apartment actually being used for? We have no idea because Mr. Osborne will not answer any questions about it: I called him about this issue last Tuesday. He answered the phone rather cheerily and when I told him I’d like to ask him a few questions, he told me he was in a meeting and requested that I call back later in the afternoon. When I called that afternoon, the call went to voicemail after two rings — I left him a voicemail and requested a call back as soon as possible. The rest of Tuesday and Wednesday went by without a returned call. I decided to try to contact him once more on Thursday but had no luck. I left him another voicemail. As of publication time, 7 days after my original call, I have still received no return correspondence from Osborne.
Osborne has spent his entire campaign trying to avoid taking positions on, well, anything — when questioned about tax policy, he doesn’t take positions for or against tax increases. Rather, he says he will come back to the district and talk to voters before casting votes in the legislature (a highly improbable and logistically impossible thing to do considering the pace of the votes during the legislative session). This seems to be his token response on many other issues as well. But what’s begging to be asked is if Mr. Osborne can’t answer my questions or return my calls now, why should I believe he would be responsive and accessible as a state representative?
Perhaps there is a very reasonable explanation for why Mr. Osborne is paying rent on an apartment with campaign money. After all, he’s a law enforcement officer — surely he would not break the law. But why won’t he talk about it?