There’s a big gray area in state campaign finance policy that could use more black and white.
That gray area lurks in the little-scrutinized surplus accounts – where excess money donated to lawmakers’ campaigns sits until the next election. Some lawmakers return the money to donors, give it to their party to spend on other candidates or donate it to charity.
But they can also use money in those accounts for what state law calls “public office-related expenses.” And apparently that’s a matter of fairly loose interpretation.
A computer analysis by The Associated Press of more than 500,000 spending reports turned in by lawmakers found many expenditures that were at the very least questionable.
Is a new wardrobe considered office-related? What if the lawmaker claims he usually only wears the new clothes when doing public business?
How about repairs to a car that is used for personal as well as public business?
What about liquor served to state staffers in an official’s private home? Or tuition for college courses a lawmaker claims helps him perform his public duties better?
In all these instances, the officials say they believe the expenditures are legitimately work-related. A Public Disclosure Commission spokesperson begs to differ, saying an item purchased from a surplus account “has to be used solely for work.”
One expenditure from a lawmaker’s surplus account looks particularly dubious. Joe Zarelli, a Ridgefield Republican who resigned his state Senate position in May, diverted more than $10,000 in excess campaign funds to a charity his wife runs and that lists him as secretary. It’s hard to figure how that could be interpreted as “public office-related.”
Toby Nixon, a former Republican legislator who now heads the Washington Coalition for Open Government, has a good suggestion for the state: Provide clearer guidelines on what expenses are and are not allowed to paid by excess campaign cash.
Surplus accounts were never meant to be personal slush funds that public officials could use for purposes unrelated to campaigns or their work. That’s what their salaries and per diem are for. The AP’s report is especially timely during this campaign season.