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Politicans spending campaign cash freely

Published December 6, 2010 12:20 pm

Politics • New campaign law tightens rules but leaves ample wiggle room to use election cash.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

About $1 of every $5 that legislative candidates spent this year was on items that personally benefited themselves or friends, despite passage of a new law designed to restrict that, according to an analysis of spending by The Salt Lake Tribune.

That means that campaign cash — which mostly comes from special interests — doesn't just help elect lawmakers but is converted by some into perks. Some examples:

• Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, spent $128 from campaign donations to take his family to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. (Ray, himself a former circus performer, concedes that is a likely violation of the new law and says he will pay back the money plus a 50 percent fine to the state.)

• Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, used $234 in such money to buy freeway express lane passes.

• Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, spent $3,490 out of his campaign chest to rent an apartment in Salt Lake City for the legislative session.

• Rep. Neal Hendrickson, D-West Valley City, spent $122 on dry cleaning.

Except for the circus tickets, "that was all probably legal under the new law," says its author, Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, who also laments that the law didn't do more to prevent such spending.

"Sometimes things move incrementally. This was a first step," he said.

Cosgrove said his bill did stop some of the most egregious conversions to personal use of campaign funds of past years, such as retiring lawmakers pocketing whatever was left over in their campaign chests — which was sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. It also appears to have stopped candidates buying or fixing cars using campaign funds.

Additionally, it has prevented candidates from paying themselves a "salary" out of campaign money. Rep. Jack Draxler, for one, had paid himself thousands of dollars a year out of his campaign chest. The North Logan Republican said he is a self-employed real estate appraiser, and that money was to make up for his loss in income during the Legislature.

The new law bans spending campaign funds on such things as clothing, rent, sporting or artistic events, cars and travel — but permits a big exception. Spending on such things is still allowed if a candidate does so with a political purpose, to help a campaign or to fulfill officeholder duties.

So, for example, Cosgrove said paying for rent is banned, unless a candidate determines it was done for campaign or officeholder work. Ditto for buying an express lane pass or going to events where some campaign-related activities may occur.

Ray says in past years he has taken some constituents or campaign volunteers to the circus, so that might have been legal under the new law. But he concedes that his campaign paid for tickets this year for just his own family without any political purpose, and that violated the law. (He also notes that the circus in previous years gave legislators two free tickets each, but it halted that amid other ethics reforms.)

"If you really want to find a loophole, you probably can," Cosgrove concedes about the new law. "But I think it is important that we are as conscientious with money from campaign donors as we are with money from taxpayers. It was given to help our campaigns, and it should be used for that."

Pre-election disclosure reports show that legislative candidates spent a combined $2.5 million on their campaigns. About $482,000 — or roughly 20 percent — went for items to benefit candidates personally or their friends.

Among the uses: passing political donations on to other politicians and parties; giving to charities; out-of-state travel; personal items or services; gifts; using it for the "Third House," a Capitol organization that buys food and snacks for lawmakers; dues to civic and political groups; paying relatives; and items such as computers and cameras for campaigns that could be used personally afterward.

Most of the donations legislators receive are from special interests.

A recent analysis by The Tribune found that only $1 of every $20 raised this year by incoming legislators came from constituents in their districts. The rest was given by corporations, political action committees, parties, lobbyists, other politicians, individuals outside of lawmakers' districts or lawmakers' own pockets.

Of the spending this year that went to benefit lawmakers personally or their friends, the biggest chunk of it — more than $300,000 — was passed on in the form of contributions to other politicians or parties.

"When I first drafted the legislation, it didn't allow passing on campaign contributions to other candidates or parties," Cosgrove said. "But in the back and forth on this bill, some things were taken out."

Kim Burningham, a former legislator who is head of Utahns for Ethical Government, says it is inappropriate for candidates to take money and pass it on to others.

"They often send it to other people or groups with whom I may not agree as a donor. They are given the money to spend on their campaign, and that's what they should do with it," he said. "Some also give all sorts of money to buy influence or seek votes for leadership positions. It's inappropriate."

House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, gave $26,000 to 16 incoming House members this year. But he was defeated for speaker by Rep. Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, after Micron and IM Flash — companies represented by her lobbyist-husband — spread $24,700 combined to 49 incoming House members.

Lawmakers this year also gave at least $61,700 to charities ranging from local junior livestock shows to Boy Scout troops, hospitals, schools, local beauty pageants and museums.

"We are approached by a lot of groups all the time for donations," Cosgrove said. "Using campaign donations allows us to help some of them and keep up with the requests."

Somewhat similarly, lawmakers reported spending at least $17,800 on gifts. Forms rarely gave much information about them, other than to say they were for constituents (including $150 in "constituent gift cards" from American Express by Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace) or weddings.

Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, spent $340 on Real Salt Lake soccer tickets as a "campaign prize." Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, spent $405 with Amazon.com on "books for delegates."

Lawmakers also spent at least $37,800 for out-of-state travel. Most of that was to attend meetings or conventions of the National Council of State Legislatures and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

They spent at least $37,500 on personal items such as the already mentioned dry cleaning, clothes, parking tickets, express lane passes and rent.

More examples include unsuccessful GOP House candidate Samuel Fidler spending $90 at Dillard's and $98 at Mr. Mac for "wardrobe." Unsuccessful candidate William Clayton spent $94 at Kohl's for "smart casual clothes for campaigning."

While the new law does not permit candidates to pocket campaign money, several used it to repay loans to their campaigns.

After Rep. Steve Mascaro, R-West Jordan, was defeated at the party convention, he repaid himself $711 in previous loans. Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, repaid himself $14,000 in previous-year loans and Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, repaid himself $4,000.

Cosgrove said he has no plans to try to tighten the law. "I think we did as much as is politically possible last year."

But Burningham's group is trying to put on the 2012 ballot an ethics initiative that would ban candidates from passing on donations to other politicians and parties, ban corporate donations and limit contributions by others to no more than $2,500.

ldavidson@sltrib.com —

Expenses allowed under the new law

Examples of expenses allowed, if related to campaign or elected office.




Charitable donations

Loan repayment

Attorney or accounting fees

Source: Utah Code 20A-11-104.






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