Reid scandal shows the worst wounds are self-inflicted

There is just nothing that’s right about the campaign spending scandal now enveloping Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

First, you shouldn’t buy gifts for your campaign donors.

Second, you definitely shouldn’t use campaign funds to buy gifts for your campaign donors.

Third, you absolutely, positively shouldn’t hire a member of your family to manufacture more than $31,000 in gifts for your campaign donors.

But if you do all that and then agree to reimburse your campaign out of personal funds, you’re not allowed to become annoyed if reporters question you about your actions. That’s an obvious, easily foreseeable result of doing what Reid did.

Oh, and fourth: You should absolutely, positively, unquestionably not do any of the above if you did something similar once before and the same thing happened!

This story started when the Federal Election Commission questioned Reid over reports that showed he’d spent what turned into a grand total of $31,249 in 2012 and 2013 with a person identified originally as “Ryan Elisabeth.” That person is actually Ryan Elisabeth Reid, the daughter of former Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid and granddaughter of Harry Reid, who operates a jewelry design business under the “Ryan Elisabeth” name. This year’s reports listed an explanation as “holiday gifts.”

“I thought it would be nice to give supporters and staff thank-you gifts that had a personal connection and a Searchlight connection, but I have decided to reimburse the campaign for the amount of the expenditure,” Reid said in a statement.

First mistake: The “gift” was when donors gave money to Reid’s campaign, Friends for Harry Reid. And I’m pretty sure they were giving to get access to the senator, a phone call returned, or a lobbying pitch heard, not to get a gift in return.

Reid got a little testy when a reporter asked about it, saying the expenditures fully complied with FEC rules, but that he was repaying his campaign anyway. “I’m very fortunate I can write that check. So it’s all done. Everything was complied with beforehand. I’m not going to answer. Read my statement,” he said.

Second mistake: If everything was above board, why reimburse your campaign? Reid is correct that paying a family member with campaign dollars isn’t a violation — provided the goods or services purchased are offered at fair market price — but it sure as hell raises questions about enriching family members at donors’ expense, which is bad. And, if Reid is fortunate enough to be able to write a personal check to cover the costs, why not just do that in the first place and avoid controversy?

“My granddaughter has been the target of harassing phone calls, strangers tracking her down and knocking on her door and negative, unwanted attention on the Internet,” Reid said in a second statement. “This has gone too far and it needs to stop now. I deeply regret any role I had creating this situation but now, as a grandparent, I say enough is enough.”

Here, the senator is right: His granddaughter didn’t ask to be thrust into the spotlight that usually illuminates Reid. He’s long since learned to handle the often-irrational hatred that comes his way, but his 23-year-old granddaughter should be off limits. And she would be, had Reid either not enlisted her to make gifts for his donors, or if he’d paid for those gifts himself. The senator must shoulder most of the blame for the fallout.

And that’s his third mistake: He should have known better. Reid is a veteran politician, fully aware of the axiom, “Don’t hand your opponent a loaded gun and dare him to shoot you.” But he’s also been down this road before: In 2005, he donated $3,300 to a Christmas bonus fund for employees of the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., where he lives. Then, as now, the FEC questioned the donation, Reid was criticized in the media, and he made his campaign whole from his own pocket.

Reid has been described as having a spine of steel. But that can be a two-edged sword in politics: He doesn’t care about criticism from the right, or the press, but he can also be blinded to doing things that he shouldn’t, regardless of whether they comply with the law. It’s happened twice now. What are the odds it will happen again?

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.