Lawmakers defeat ban on campaign funds for personal use
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — While almost every other state and the federal government have figured out a way to make it illegal for politicians to use campaign funds for personal use, Virginia lawmakers said Thursday the issue remains too complex for them to find a consensus.
A Republican-controlled House panel voted down the last remaining piece of legislation that would put new limits on how lawmakers use their largely unregulated campaign accounts. Similar pieces of legislation have already been defeated this year, as they were the year before.
GOP Del. Mark Cole, a sponsor of the legislation banning the use of campaign funds for personal use, told the panel that there were just too many unanswered questions for the bill to move forward.
“I think we’re just going to have to work on this more,” Cole said.
Cole said several lawmakers shared private concerns that a proposed ban would make harmless behavior illegal. He said one lawmaker, who Cole declined to name, brought up a scenario in which the lawmaker bought a box of donuts for a campaign rally and then shared some of the donuts with family members after the event.
Virginia has one of the least restrictive and policed campaign finance systems in the country, with lawmakers only barred from using campaign funds for personal use once they close out their accounts.
An Associated Press review of the state’s campaign finance system last year found that some lawmakers frequently use campaign accounts to pay for expensive meals and hotels, as well as personal expenses like gas and cellphone bills.
Lawmakers in Virginia frequently do not face competitive re-elections, but still raise and spending large amounts of campaign dollars each year. Some lawmakers raise virtually all of their money from businesses or special interests that lobby the General Assembly.
Cole said there’s no urgency to pass the bill because he did not think lawmakers were abusing their accounts. Cole note that lawmakers have to report their spending publicly and their donations would dry up if they did not spend money properly.
While lawmakers must disclose their campaign spending, they are free to do so with only vague details. Some lawmakers reimburse themselves thousands of dollars with only scant explanation, such as “travel reimbursement.” Virginia’s State Board of Elections does not audit or investigate campaign finance reports. Elected prosecutors can investigate campaign finance violations, but longtime political watchers do not recall a case ever being brought.
Democratic Del. Marcus Simon, who also sponsored a ban on using campaign funds for personal use, said lawmakers are well aware that some of their colleagues are spending campaign money on inappropriate uses.
“It’s happening,” Simon said.
He added that Virginia is hurting it image by not passing such a ban.
Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has urged lawmakers to support a ban on campaign funds for personal use. His spokesman, Brian Coy, said the governor is “disappointed that legislators voted to protect a loophole in Virginia’s campaign finance laws that allows corporate donors to line politicians’ pockets.”