BOSTON — With the recession, most people are going out to eat less these days. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for many political leaders who are finding another way to pick up the tab. The I-Team reviewed dozens of campaign expense reports over the past year, and found what critics believe to be loose interpretations of the state’s campaign finance laws.
Take House Speaker Robert DeLeo, for example. The I-Team found he used his campaign funds to buy countless dinners for fellow legislators and staff members. He bought a gift certificate for Senate President Therese Murray. He even tapped his campaign accounts to buy a wedding present for a State House worker. Expenses like this added up to more than $22,000.
Pam Wilmot of Common Cause, a group trying to raise the ethical bar on Beacon Hill, said “We believe that the kinds of expenditures that should be allowed really should relate to the campaign, directly and substantially.”
The current state law states campaign funds are meant “for the enhancement of the political future of the candidate . . . so long as such expenditure is not primarily for the candidate’s or any other person’s personal use. . . ”
Speaker DeLeo wouldn’t talk on camera about his expenses, but his campaign gave the I-Team the following statement: “All expenditures for the committee were spent on items that are well within established guidelines. As a leader in the current effort to reform our ethics laws, Speaker DeLeo is open to considering changing any guidelines that might need updating.”
When asked if she thinks the current laws get violated and the definition stretched, Wilmot said yes. “There have certainly been instances where people have reimbursed themselves for personal expenses, paid for virtually every meal they have ever had out.”
She added that it can appear “you are getting perks for being in office, like fancy dinners that you might not otherwise have, and you have this little slush fund to use.”
The I-Team found dozens of Beacon Hill politicians using their campaign funds this way, including Governor Deval Patrick.
It seems that going to the Inaugural of his good friend President Obama put the governor in a festive mood. On the same day he threw parties at two swanky Washington D.C restaurants for staff and family members. The total bill was more that $5,500, and it was charged to his campaign.
Charlotte Golar Richie, an official with the Deval Patrick Committee, told the I-Team this was a special event and met the threshold of the campaign finance laws. “I think that we could probably debate this. I see this as absolutely appropriate in terms of a campaign expense.”
Although Wilmot says the governor might not have violated campaign laws, she says these types of expenditures in general send the wrong message. “It’s something that a public employee shouldn’t be doing, and shouldn’t be getting campaign contributions to do that.”
Even legislators who aren’t household names, like Representative Ron Mariano of Quincy, can rack up significant bills. He spent almost $4,000 just wining and dining fellow legislators last year. He told the I-Team he justified the expenses because of his interest in becoming Speaker of the House.
While many politicians apply the rules differently, voters say they seem pretty clear to them. When asked if a candidate should be able to use campaign money for personal use, one woman told us that this is where the line should be drawn.
State Senator James Eldridge of Acton agrees. He filed a campaign reform bill which would, among other things, redefine how campaign funds can be spent. “I think that practice has to end.”
Wilmot says the danger of business as usual continuing is “. . . influence peddling. It’s the appearance that decisions are not being made on their merits.”
The I-Team also learned that this is based, more or less, on an honor system. No one investigates these receipts when they’re filed. The Office of Campaign and Political Finance processes the filings, and might ask some questions if a worker happens to notice a dubious trend. If that happens, they might investigate, but it is not systematized because they have no investigators on staff.
Regulators can write a letter of reprimand if they find misuse of funds, and there are some penalties which can apply. Extreme cases are turned over the Attorney General’s office.