Panel again defeats ban on using campaign money for personal gain

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia lawmakers, outliers in the country for their ability to spend campaign money on virtually anything, have a year ago halted efforts to impose basic limits on how these funds can be used.

A Republican-controlled House subcommittee on Wednesday rejected a bill that would have banned spending on what its sponsor called “the low-hanging fruits, the more egregious things.”

Democratic Senator John Bell said he scaled back his ambitions after encountering concerns from other lawmakers that spending campaign money on things like pizza at campaign events or campaign t-shirts could lead to frivolous and politically motivated complaints.

Its measurewhich cleared the Senate 37-3, did not address food or clothing, but prohibited the use of donations on items such as home mortgages, country club memberships, vacations, tickets for sporting events or country club fees.

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“Frankly, when a candidate or elected official does one of those most egregious things and it gets into the paper, it makes us all look bad. And I think that hurts the trust that people have, because people should know that we’re here to serve…not to get rich,” Bell said.

After about 15 minutes of discussion, the panel voted 5-3 to defeat the bill.

The same subcommittee voted against similar personal use ban bills by House sponsors earlier in this year’s legislative session. By contrast, a ban unanimously cleared the Democratic-controlled House only last year die in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The November election has changed some of the House membership since then, toppling party control to the GOP.

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After last year’s bill was defeated, a bipartisan group was formed to study the issue. Although this group did not complete its work, it released a draft report that called for a ban on personal use, which federal candidates and candidates in most other states face.

Bell’s measure was the only remaining personal use bill, so its defeat almost certainly ends consideration of the issue in this year’s regular legislative session, which ends this month.

Clean Virginia, an advocacy group for good governance and energy policy reform, noted that in 2015 a ban on personal use was recommended by an ethics commission formed in response to the gifts scandal and the bribery conviction of former Republican Governor Bob McDonnell. The conviction was reversed by the United States Supreme Court.

“There is currently nothing preventing a political candidate in Virginia from using unlimited campaign funds, for which there is no cap in Virginia, to purchase a vacation home or a posh country club membership,” a Clean Virginia executive director Brennan Gilmore said in a statement. “It’s no wonder public confidence in our elected officials is at an all-time low. This legalization of the scam is deeply embarrassing for Virginia.”

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An associated press review of the state’s campaign finance system in 2016 found that some lawmakers frequently used campaign accounts to pay for expensive meals and hotels, as well as personal expenses such as gas and cell phone bills.

Nancy Morgan, the co-ordinator of a grassroots group advocating for campaign finance reform, said “Commonwealth citizens are the losers” after Wednesday’s action.

Lawmakers raised a range of concerns when discussing the bill, as they did before when the AP asked for comment on the defeat of the previous measures.

GOP Del. Kim Taylor objected to a provision that would have allowed spending on certain child care expenses. Bell agreed to remove this provision if the committee agreed to move the bill forward, but noted that under the current law, virtually all expenses are already authorized.

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“Again, we have nothing today. Frankly, there’s nothing stopping anyone from doing whatever they want with these funds,” he said.

Bell’s bill would have created a process for campaign donors or voters to file a complaint with the Department of Elections, which could result in a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

A handful of other campaign finance measures are still in effect.

One from Democratic Del. David Bulova would be to squeeze record retention requirements and implement reviews of campaign committee financial records by the Department of Elections. Currently, disclosures are effectively made under a state-sponsored exam-free honor system.

“I can’t believe we don’t already have this,” he said of the record retention requirements as he spoke to a Senate panel that moved the measure forward Wednesday morning.

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Another measure de Bulova would extend the work of the bipartisan panel studying campaign finance reform.

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