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Put steak aside and teeth into law

Editorial

Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard thinks it's perfectly acceptable - even commendable - to use his leftover campaign donations to pay for steak dinners and office portraits.

We strongly disagree with the commissioner on that point, but our objection can be no more than academic for now. Under Oregon law, Leonard's liberal use of excess campaign dollars is a legal practice and will remain so until the Legislature acts to change statutes that fail to serve the public's interest.

As reported in the Feb. 26 Portland Tribune, Leonard has found appetizing and entertaining ways to spend portions of the money remaining in his 2008 campaign chest. He has hosted dinners at Ringside steakhouse and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in amounts ranging from $183 to $341. He has purchased tickets to Portland Timbers games and even used $750 to pay an artist for a portrait of himself.

Leonard argues that these purchases were related to his official duties and were therefore legitimate uses of campaign money. The dinners, for example, were not social occasions, but business meetings he would rather not have attended. By using campaign cash to pay the bill, he actually saves taxpayer money, Leonard claims.

We could quibble with Leonard about whether the people who donated to his campaign would approve of their money being spent on steak dinners. And we also believe that when a public official uses leftover campaign cash for activities that appear to be pleasurable, then a campaign donation becomes something close to a personal gift - a gift for which reciprocity might be expected in the future.

But those arguments are irrelevant as long as state law condones what Leonard is doing. Leonard may not be alone in his practices. So the place to close this and other gaping loopholes in campaign contribution and expenditure laws is the Legislature.

Lawmakers must make it crystal clear that campaign donations are to be used only for expenses related to the candidate's race for office. Once a campaign is over, the money can be saved for the next campaign or donated to charity - but all other uses should be banned.

Some of Portland's finest restaurants might lose a little of Leonard's business, but the public will be better served in many other ways.