Campaign Finance Laws, What Are They Good For?

Absolutely nothing! Yarbrough proves it again.

Former federal prosecutor Mike Attanasio faced the same juror mind-set during two lengthy trials where Yarbrough was one of a group of defendants.

"I think there is a sense amongst the public that a lot of money flows through the campaign system to candidates," comments Attanasio, who now works as a civil litigator in San Diego. "Therefore, it becomes hard to make an appealing criminal prosecution when people understand that candidates around the country at all levels raise millions and millions of dollars."

Knowing how lightly the public regards campaign violations, defendants routinely attempt to elude more serious bribery charges by claiming they thought they were taking illegal contributions. When cash exchanges hands between willing parties, jurors are apt to see it as a victimless crime.

"When you're a prosecutor, you have to sell it that the victim is the system of government, and that the victim is all of our rights to honest public servants," says Attanasio. "But that of course is less compelling than a victim who has been assaulted or otherwise hurt or damaged in some way, ripped off of their life savings.When you have to sell the concept of good government, it is more difficult."

To Holmes, things would be a lot simpler if the legislature simply lowered campaign violations from felonies to misdemeanors and imposed penalties that fit the scope of the crime. He has made several such appeals to legislative committees in Austin. "I've been up there a number of times trying to convince those people they don't need to be making these election laws felonies. It's crazy. You want to fine 'em, [impose] liquidated damages, take away their right to be on the ballot, any of those things, fine. But putting 'em in prison? Boy, that's going to be a real prosecutor that can do that."

An indication of how murky the law can be came last week during the Yarbrough trial, when the woman who gave the councilman the corporate contribution inadvertently admitted on the stand that her company routinely violates state election law. King conceded she made a mistake in not giving Yarbrough a personal check. Entertainment One, explained King, prefers to have employees make its political contributions with personal checks, and then reimburses them later with bonuses.

State Ethics Commission lawyer Karen Lundquist says that what King so willingly described in court is in itself a crime.

"If a corporation has an agreement with employees for them to make contributions and then the corporation will later reimburse them for that in some form of bonus or salary payment," explains Lundquist, "then the actual contribution is from the corporation. It's illegal."

Will the district attorney prosecute King or Entertainment One on the basis of her testimony, given the refusal of jurors to convict the man who took the money?

Prosecutor Taylor may have lost the Yarbrough case by an 11-1 margin, but he isn't prepared to give up on enforcing campaign finance laws just yet.

"I find it hard to say, as clear as this one was, that we're just not going to pay attention to what the legislature says about corporate contributions because it's just not practical."

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