Pols have carte blanche with campaign cash
Few restrictions on how lawmakers use their campaign accounts
FOR MASSACHUSETTS POLITICIANS, campaign accounts are the gifts that keep on giving. In or out of office, living or dead, there’s a lot of leeway in how elected officials spend the money they raise from supporters.
From a cup of coffee to parking tickets; from Halloween costumes and decorations to tux rentals and purchases; from flowers to meals morning, noon, and night, candidates, elected officials, and retired politicians use campaign accounts to beef up their wallets and make everyday purchases. All they have to say — or even just think — is that the purchase will in some way, shape, or form benefit them politically.
Joan Menard, who last served in the Legislature in 2010, has spent more than $300,000 in campaign money since leaving office on everything from trips and meals to a $5,000 donation to the legal fund of a former colleague.
State Rep. Mark Cusack of Braintree has dropped nearly $10,000 over the last two years on more than 80 visits to several Beacon Hill pubs and restaurants, listing them in his campaign reports as meetings with colleagues or staff.
And Rep. Paul McMurtry of Dedham, like clockwork, gets his personal car washed every month using campaign funds.
All of these campaign expenditures have an implied claim of some connection with politics, but they often appear to simply support the candidate’s lifestyle. Indeed, it’s sometimes difficult to draw the line between campaign and personal expenditures. There’s very little oversight as to what — or when — someone can spend the money given to them while in office. The statute governing campaign expenditures is purposely vague and leaves it largely to the candidate to decide if money being spent fits the purpose of advancing his or her political fortunes.
While much debate locally and nationally has focused on the influence of big money in political campaigns, the discussion is mainly centered on the contributions flowing into the candidates’ coffers. Scant attention is paid to where the money goes.
The current 198 legislators — there are two open Senate seats — spent more than $22 million in 2014 and 2015, with 2014 being an election year. That works out to an average of more than $110,000 per lawmaker over the two-year period, even though 55 percent of the lawmakers had no opponent in 2014 and most of the rest faced token opposition. Only three incumbents actually lost to a challenger.
While the vast majority of campaign expenditures are clear political expenses, such as lawn signs, advertising, office rent, office utilities, and voter databases, there are literally thousands of examples of money being spent that could only be indirectly considered political.
Rep. Shawn Dooley of Norfolk, the only Republican lawmaker who sat on a legislative task force reviewing the campaign finance laws in 2014, says colleagues who defend the existing system often say their contributors don’t have a problem with the way political funds are spent because they keep on donating.
“I think that’s disingenuous,” he says. “I know when I gave contributions, I would be disappointed if I were to have later found out they used my campaign money to take their wife on a trip. When you do things like that, if someone is running a campaign against you, if I were to be running against someone, I would make sure their supporters knew and their constituents knew that was being done with the money.”
When the Legislature enacted the first campaign finance laws in 1973, lawmakers wrote tight restrictions on the use of campaign accounts for constitutional officers, restricting expenditures only to “reasonable and necessary expenses directly related to the campaign of the candidate.” Once the governor or lieutenant governor or any other constitutional officer leaves office, campaign funds are largely off-limits.
But for every other politician, especially themselves, lawmakers created a much more expansive regulation for how and when the funds can be spent. Campaigns “may receive, pay, and expend money or other things of value for the enhancement of the political future of the candidate or the principle for which the committee was organized; provided, however, that the expenditure shall not be primarily for the candidate’s or any other person’s personal use,” says the law.
But with no definition of what constitutes enhancement or even the future, candidates and their committees are given wide latitude in deciding what’s a legitimate campaign expense and what is not.
“They’re taking advantage of a vaguely written, broadly defined rule that is ripe for abuse, except it’s not technically abuse,” says Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College and director of the school’s Martin Institute for Law & Society. “It helps to perpetuate power in the political class. It gives them a source of revenue to use for either political or personal expenditures that most donors, and certainly most ordinary citizens, wouldn’t consider appropriate.”
Spending does not often correlate with opposition. Of the top 10 spenders between January 1, 2014, the last election year, and the end of December 2015, half had no opponents. Of those who had opponents, three had double-digit victories, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who beat back his opponent by a 72-28 margin.
The biggest spender in the Legislature by far was DeLeo, who doled out $1.2 million during the two-year period and won his race in 2014 with 72 percent of the vote. Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who ran for reelection unopposed, was the next highest spender with $539,291 in expenditures. Both DeLeo and Rosenberg, given their positions as the leaders of the House and Senate, have broader political considerations than their own district seats.
Sen. Eric Lesser of Longmeadow, a political newcomer who edged four other candidates in the 2014 Democratic primary and narrowly won his seat in the three-way final election, spent nearly $522,000 in campaign funds over the last two years. He says he would favor public funding of campaigns. “I think, frankly, campaign finance is a mess across the board,” he says. “It’s constantly a source of frustration for people, including myself. We want our elected officials to be as representative as possible and responsible as possible and that’s a goal I share.”
Not every lawmaker spends a lot of campaign money. Rep. Byron Rushing of Boston, the House’s fourth-highest ranking leader, spent a total of $729, all on bank fees, over the last two years. Since 2000, Rushing has faced no opposition and his campaign account balance has never exceeded $20,000. His highest-spending total was $5,000 in 2009, which included a $4,500 contribution to the Committee for a Democratic House PAC; most years he spent less than $1,000.
Trying to summarize how lawmakers spend their campaign funds is near-impossible. While there are some uniform phrases common to all campaign finance reports, officials identify most of their expenditures in their own shorthand, requiring a Herculean effort to go through the more than 70,000 line items for the last two years alone.
Campaign expenditures, such as advertising, voter databases, and office rent appear on nearly all ledgers. Many lawmakers use campaign accounts to pay for upkeep in their district offices and some have used the funds to pay staff. Rep. Cory Atkins of Concord paid $4,750 to two family members, Casey Atkins and Timothy Atkins, to work as consultants in 2014, and more than $34,000 to the both since 2008.
But there also are legislators who use the accounts for daily expenses and purchases that would not be allowed if they were held to the same standard as constitutional officers who are only allowed to use the money for direct campaign expenses.
A breakdown of the legislators’ reports indicates $106,005 was spent on flowers, balloons, and fruit arrangements sent as gifts or condolences. The lawmakers also spent at least $275,650 on meetings over meals, with dinner being the most popular meal of the day. That figure does not include meals for large gatherings, staff, or volunteers.
While campaign regulations allow the purchase of a vehicle for campaign use, only about 10 legislators take advantage of that, including DeLeo. Fewer than 50 legislators paid for gas for their vehicles out of their campaign accounts.
Regulations issued by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance require filers to itemize all expenditures over $50. But what many do is take reimbursements in large sums, saying the reimbursements are for an accumulation of small receipts. According to data, legislators withdrew nearly $230,000 in unitemized expenditures in 2014 and 2015.
Legislators were also generous to each other, making at least $218,880 in campaign contributions to colleagues in the two-year period. It’s a case of having each other’s back, even if it’s not what donors intended, says Ubertaccio.
“Most donors believe that their money is going to campaign expenses,” he says. “Even if you have a pretty broad sense of what that entails, many reasonable donors believe their contribution is going to help their choice of candidate. The intent of most donors is help people win office and I’m not sure the donor intent is being honored.”
CUSHIONING THE RETIREMENT BLOW
Politicians who leave office with no intention of returning can still dip into their account for expenses that occur long after they leave public life. Even if they make a public pronouncement that it’s the end of the line politically, that’s not the ruling factor.
“It’s up to a candidate to determine whether they may run for office again in the future,” says Jason Tait, the spokesman for the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. “It really is on them. If they say they have a political future, then that’s the decision. It doesn’t matter what they say [publicly]. They don’t have to tell anyone.”
Joan Menard served more than 30 years in the Legislature. From 1979 to 2000, she was a state representative and became involved in party politics, serving as chairman of the state Democratic Party for eight years. In 2000, she was elected to the Senate and moved up to become Majority Whip by the time she left.
Not long after she left office in 2011, Menard landed a vice president’s position at Bristol Community College, where she earned nearly $130,000 a year by the time she retired in 2014. Her three years at Bristol gave Menard a state pension of $99,287 a year, according to the state Open Checkbook website, plus she earns several thousand more a year consulting for the college.
But on top of all that, Menard left office after the 2010 term with nearly $305,000 in her campaign account. Over the next five years, she spent all but $13,636. While the former senator made nearly $60,000 in donations to charities and scholarships, the bulk of the money was spent on attending conferences out-of-state, gifts to aides, contributions to political allies, lunches at upscale restaurants, and excess mileage payments for her the Cadillac her campaign leased until July 2011. Among her donations was a $5,000 contribution to former Senate president Therese Murray’s legal fund last April, several months after Murray retired.
Menard, who did not return calls for comment, spent $750 on two meetings in 2012 at the upscale Mooo Restaurant on Beacon Hill. She also held her going-away party there, running up a tab of nearly $900. Officials at the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance sent her campaign treasurer, Eduardo J. Costa, Jr., of Fall River, letters asking for explanations of what the meals were for and who attended but neither he nor Menard responded. Costa also did not return a call to CommonWealth.
Menard, now 80, also reported spending nearly $10,000 on meetings and meals at other restaurants in Boston, Fall River, and elsewhere but provided little detail in her campaign finance reports on who attended or how the meetings would enhance her political future. Campaign finance officials have been warning campaign account holders they need to be more forthcoming about who they dine with but that seems to be having little impact. A search of expenditures among legislators who list mealtime meetings shows hardly any with any detail, merely entering the receipt as “lunch /staff,” “dinner w/leg” and such.
Like Menard, there is little chance that former House speaker Thomas Finneran will get back into the political life. Finneran was forced to leave office in 2004 after his indictment on federal perjury charges, which was later pled out as obstruction to justice. While the conviction cost him his pension, there was no barrier to him spending down the nearly half-million dollars he had in his campaign bank account when he resigned. The balance now stands at just under $1,900, mainly because Finneran used more than $350,000 on lawyers. His expenditures also included $10,000 in donations to Thomas M. Finneran Charities Inc., and his account continues to pay the $345 monthly rent on a storage space in Milton.
Campaign finance spending guidelines are tighter for candidates who die with a balance in their accounts. According to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, the campaign aides of a candidate who dies with a campaign balance must dissolve the account within a reasonable amount of time and use the money to pay outstanding liabilities; to make donations to a charity, a nonprofit, or a scholarship fund; or to contribute to the state’s local aid fund or the general fund of any city or town.
When longtime state representative John Binienda of Worcester died in 2014, his campaign account held nearly $260,000, which was distributed evenly among two senior centers, a church, and Worcester State University. When state representative Michael Coppola of Foxborough died of cancer in 2005, the $18,000 in his account was used to pay his estate for part of the $31,000 loan he had made to his campaign.
But other expenditures from the campaign accounts of deceased officials are questionable. The campaign account of Thomas Kennedy, the senator from Brockton, made a $100 donation to a local politician in a neighboring town two months after he died. The campaign account of longtime state senator Charles Shannon of Winchester was allowed to pay $1,500 for a dinner for staffers at Abe & Louie’s in 2005 shortly after the politician’s death and then footed the $68 bill for dinner with some supporters more than 18 months after his death. Under campaign finance rules, funds can be used to pay for receptions for supporters after a funeral, though funeral expenses cannot be paid with campaign funds.
DRAWING THE LINE
Because campaign finance regulations are so vague governing what is considered an enhancement to a legislator’s political future, violations are few and far between. Still, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance occasionally draws the line. The most recent — and one of the most notable — examples involved state Sen. Brian Joyce of Milton, who used campaign funds to pay for $3,367 of the $5,200 cost of his son’s high school graduation party, claiming the event also helped him politically.
The Office of Campaign and Political Finance held that the $3,367 drawn from Joyce’s political account to help pay for the graduation party amounted to personal use of campaign funds. Along with a series of other campaign spending issues, mostly of a bookkeeping nature, Joyce was ordered to make a charitable donation of $4,953 using his own personal funds. The bookkeeping problems included failure to document personal use of his campaign vehicle, which his campaign leases for more than $700 a month, the highest lease fee paid by any legislator.
Joyce, who had just over $45,000 in his campaign account at the end of 2015, announced that he would not be seeking reelection this fall. A federal probe examining connections between his actions as a senator and his work as a lawyer representing clients is ongoing.
State Sen. Mark Montigny, who had $982,000 in his campaign account at the end of 2015, leases a Lexus for which he pays nearly $500 a month. Montigny also used his account to pay for trips to Iceland, Cape Verde, and Washington state, among other locations. In December 2014, his campaign account spent $121 for a wall decal — a vinyl, life-sized decal, usually of a sports figure — from Fathead. Montigny did not return phone calls.
State Rep. Marjorie Decker of Cambridge regularly piles up parking tickets in Cambridge and Boston, using her campaign account to pay the fines. Over the past two years, Decker has racked up more than $1,900 in parking tickets.
“I have a bad habit of booking too many meetings at once,” says Decker, one of the few lawmakers to return calls about their campaign spending. “It’s part of the cost of doing business. It’s embarrassing.”
Decker says she gets many other parking tickets on personal errands that she pays herself, but says she checked with state regulators to make sure she could use her funds to pay the tickets as long as they were incurred in the course of enhancing her political future. She also pointed out she does not take the per diem payment lawmakers are allowed to collect when the Legislature is in business.
State Rep. John Scibak of South Hadley does take the per diem, $60 a session in his case because of the distance of his town from the State House. But the law allows legislators to use campaign funds to reimburse themselves for the difference between what the per diem covers and the total mileage cost under Internal Revenue Service rules. Scibak says the driving distance is 192 miles round trip between his home and the State House and the IRS allows roughly 54 cents a mile in reimbursable expense, making it a $36-a-day difference. In January 2014, Scibak’s campaign account reimbursed him for a total of $8,350 in mileage expenses for 2011 and 2012.
Erin O’Brien, a professor and chairman of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is willing to give state lawmakers, who are often political novices, the benefit of the doubt on most of their campaign spending. But she says they should realize that questionable campaign expenditures don’t cast them in a flattering light.
“It looks tawdry. Regardless of whether it’s legal or not, it’s just bad politics,” she says. “It’s so low-rent and stupid, politically. This really icky behavior is allowed by the way campaign finance laws are written.”
LITTLE WILL TO CHANGE
Legislators earn about $60,000 a year and their salary is tied to the Consumer Price Index. But that’s not their only source of income. Many committee chairmanships and vice-chairmanships come with extra pay, ranging from $7,500 to $25,000. Nearly half the lawmakers hold outside jobs, with nearly a quarter earning six-figure salaries.
On top of all that, each representative and senator receives a $7,200 annual stipend for expenses but there’s no requirement to spend it or account for it. In fact, many lawmakers use their campaign accounts to pay for their district office expenses and just pocket the supply stipend. Officials do not pay income tax on their campaign funds.
Democrats lead the Legislature and they also have the lead in spending, so no one should expect any changes in the campaign finance laws anytime in the near future.
A spokesman for Speaker DeLeo referred specific questions about his campaign account to the treasurer of the campaign. On the more general issue of campaign finance spending, the spokesman pointed to legislation passed in 2009 dealing with state ethics reform and campaign finance legislation in 2014.
Neither measure addresses how campaign funds are spent. The ethics reform required officials to file campaign finance reports three times a year in election years and twice in off years. The campaign finance reform legislation mostly addressed political action committees and other non-candidate entities. It did, however, double the annual contribution limit from $500 to $1,000 starting at the beginning of 2015, which means the size of campaign accounts will probably grow in coming years.
Former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, who also previously headed the watchdog group Common Cause, says the problem with stagnant campaign finance laws is the one-party system allows incumbents to fatten up their accounts and have access to money that foes don’t.
“It’s a perception issue in my view and it’s a monitoring issue,” he says. “They need to realize you all get tarred by the actions of a few. It’s the lack of contested races that makes this an issue, makes this a problem. The number of uncontested races tends to breed this sense of entitlement and, inevitably, it starts to slide.”
Harshbarger says lawmakers need to hold themselves to the same standards that they held constitutional officers to when they first wrote the law. They need to remove the vagaries and more clearly define what the money can be used for.“People need to understand the money given to a campaign has not been given to you personally or because you’re a wonderful person, but that you’ll do the right thing for the people of the Commonwealth,” he says. “It is not given to raise the standard of your personal life.”