Election fund leftovers are ripe for abuse

From the Editorial Board

Politicians usually amass large amounts of surplus money by the time a campaign is over.
Politicians usually amass large amounts of surplus money by the time a campaign is over. The Miami Herald, file photo

“To the victors go the spoils” is an adage applicable to both war and politics.

When politicians win campaigns, there’s often a surplus of treasure in the war chests. The state’s Public Disclosure Commission estimates that elected officials transfer on average $65,000 of post-election funds into individual accounts.

Campaign finance rules dictate how these funds can be used: Officials can hold the extra money for future campaigns, donate it to political parties or charitable causes, reimburse themselves for lost wages or cover expenses related to official business. They can even return the money back to donors, though that’s a rarity according to the PDC.

Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, recently used more than $10,000 in surplus funds from his 2016 campaign to redecorate what he called his “shabby” office in Olympia. He reported being very pleased with the outcome.

Office furniture, equipment, travel, restaurants and cell phones are all permissible, according to the PDC.

Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, used some extra dollars to resole his shoes, a frugal move that’s hard to condemn. He also spent $1,272 on suits and ties at the Men’s Wearhouse.

Ideally, legislators would donate all their leftover election funds to charity. Still, you won’t hear us quibble too much over a new suit, or some new tread on a pair of Oxfords, or even an interior redecoration of an Olympia office. Legislators make financial sacrifices to work these part-time public jobs, and looking respectable or having a respectable place to meet constituents seems reasonable.

The trouble is, no one’s keeping a close eye on how these funds are being spent. The PDC is the lead watchdog for such things, but by its own admission, doesn’t have the staff to audit for potential abuses.

Formal investigations by the commission are almost always prompted by outside sources during election season. The last enforcement of a surplus spending infraction occurred in 2012, when former Sen. Dave Schmidt of Edmonds was fined the maximum $10,000 penalty for reimbursing himself for lost wages without proper documentation.

There’s always a risk that elected officials can play fast and loose with the “office-related expense” clause.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, is one of at least a dozen Washington lawmakers who recently tapped out his surplus funds, according to an investigation by The Seattle Times and Northwest News Network.

Ericksen, who splits time between the two Washingtons, has spent thousands in surplus election-campaign money on airfare, plus lodging and meals in Washington, D.C. He was summoned by the Trump Administration in January for a temporary job at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ericksen is already taking heat for his bi-coastal double dipping of salaries. His EPA gig pays $77.58 an hour; he also earns $46,839 per year for his Senate job, which we believe demands more attention than he currently gives it.

As for his use of surplus election funds, Ericksen declined to answer specific questions, simply telling the Times and Northwest News that all expenditures are tied to his duties as a state senator. But some bills — such as $2,084 spent at a Washington D.C. Embassy Suites hotel on his first day of work at the EPA — stir up waters that are already muddy.

We wonder what political donors make of all this. Most are likely glad to write a check to a candidate running for state office, in exchange for a willingness to fight the good fight at home. It’s unlikely they do it to facilitate careers in two time zones.