What should be the penalty for campaign dirty tricks?

It's a question that might have come out of the Watergate era, but it's just as relevant today. It arises again with the news that one unsuccessful candidate in the Democratic primary for a state delegate seat representing a portion of Howard County netted a fine and community service for his sneak attack on another.

A District Court handed Brian Bailey a sentence of one year of supervised probation, 200 hours of community service and a $500 fine last week for violating state election law. The charge against him was failure to provide a proper "authority line" on a piece of campaign material, the little disclaimer that tells you whose campaign or which political action committee produced the ad or flier or website.

On the face of it, you might think it isn't a big deal. So what if Bailey forgot to tag a piece of campaign lit with "by authority of ..."? Probably just an honest mistake. Who reads that stuff anyway?

Well, there's more to it than that.

The campaign material in question was a website with the domain name of DongarraForDelegate.com. The state charged that Bailey secured the domain name and used the site "to publish derogatory campaign material concerning Rebecca Dongarra, a candidate running against him in the 12th District."

State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt told the Baltimore Sun that an investigation of the website revealed that, instead of indicating who was responsible for it, it included the line, "Not authorized by any candidate or campaign committee."

Anyone scanning the Internet for more information on Dongarra's positions on issues or looking to support her campaign could have stumbled onto Bailey's bogus Dongarra site and found arguments against her, without knowing who was making them.

The court rendered Bailey's punishment as probation before judgment, which means it won't give Bailey a criminal record.

Dongarra told the Sun she believes Bailey got off too easily.

"I think it's an example of those convicted of campaign violations getting a slap on the wrist," Dongarra said. "I think if we're going to make it so that our campaign laws are just, they need to have teeth to carry weight."

To most of us, 500 bucks constitutes a fair chunk of change, and 200 hours of anything, be it picking up trash or performing clerical tasks, will take a chunk out of your day for quite a while.

Still, Dongarra has a point worth considering. Do we truly believe probation before judgment, community service and a three-figure fine will deter others who might try to get around legal protections for candidates and, more importantly, voters?

My guess is that they won't, but neither would much stiffer fines. Even the potential of jail time, I suspect, will not keep the bad actors from executing sleazeball tactics.

We've all observed a measure of narcissism in the political process. Undeniably, getting elected to public office can provide an almost intoxicating validation.

For even the most well intentioned politicians, getting elected or re-elected is, almost inevitably, the top priority. After all, how can they do the great things they want to do for the people if they don't get that seat in the legislature or the mayor's office or whatever?

Those with an overdeveloped gift for self-delusion can easily convince themselves that their cause, whatever it may be, is so important that it justifies any sort of trickery they might dream up to foil their wrong-thinking opponents. It also justifies their own martyrdom, if it comes to that.

If somebody's so convinced of his own rightness that he's willing to do wrong things to ensure his place in the power structure, it's difficult to see a deterrent effect in any penalty short of burning at the stake.

No, the only punishment that truly seems to fit this sort of crime is banishment, a prohibition from running for office. For a first-time, minor offense, perhaps you'd impose the penalty for just the next election cycle. For more serious transgressions, the next two or three. The most egregious would get the offender a lifetime ban from ever running for public office.

It's a fair bet that such penalties would invite constitutional challenges, as they might be considered a form of disenfranchisement. It would, though, be a fight worth having.