ANNAPOLIS – Can state legislators legally spend campaign money on dues for anything from fraternities to the NRA? Or how about donations to charities and organizations?
Under current regulations, questions of legality and ethics are a gray area.
State Administrative Board of Election Laws guidelines, which are based on the Maryland Fair Election Practices Act, set up three basic standards:
* An expenditure must be election related, meaning that it would not be incurred if there were no potential candidacy.
* It must enhance the candidate’s election chances.
* Campaign funds may not be disbursed for personal use (including loans for personal use).
Several lawmakers, an election board official, Common Cause and an assistant state’s attorney all said in interviews that the law is too vague, but weren’t sure how to change it.
“We couldn’t make up a list that says you can and you can’t,” said Terry Holliday, administrative aide for the election board’s Division of Candidacy and Campaign Finance. “With so many expenditures, it varies.”
Many echoed her sentiments, saying that changes in technology and varying campaign techniques make it impossible to devise an expenditure list, like the one the Legislature repealed in 1976.
This year the General Assembly tackled several bills regarding campaign finance reform, the best publicized of them requiring candidates to file their official reports in electronic form. Only one dealt with campaign expenditures, allowing them to be paid for with wire transfers. It died in committee.
Del. Elizabeth Bobo, D-Howard, said she was surprised to hear how some of her colleagues used their money. Bobo, who signed onto several campaign finance reform bills, said lawmakers should look at campaign expenditures.
“It probably always will be a gray area, that doesn’t mean it needs to be wide open,” Bobo said.
It wasn’t always.
In 1976, the Legislature repealed a more specific statute, which said — nearly verbatim — that funds could lawfully be spent on the following:
1) hiring of halls and music for conventions, public meetings and public primaries and advertising the same;
2) printing and circulating political articles, circulars, pamphlets and books or renting radio and television time and newspaper space for political speeches and advertising;
3) printing and distributing sample or specimen ballots and instructions to voters;
4) renting rooms and headquarters to be used by political committees;
5) compensating clerks, stenographers and typists employed in the committee rooms;
6) traveling and other legitimate expenses of political agents, committees and public speakers;
7) necessary postage, stationery, telegrams, telephoning and printing expenses;
8) and finally, the cost and expenses of messengers and other persons sent or summoned by the state central committee of any political party in connection with party matters or interests.
But the law did not limit permissible expenses to the above categories.
“I don’t think you can really do that now,” Del. Kenneth C. Montague, Jr., D-Baltimore, said of specific statutory lists. “Campaigning has really changed a lot.”
He said it may be better to write a law listing what campaign money can’t be spent on. But Montague, who often hears these questions as the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, said he was doubtful such a bill would pass.
When the 1976 law was repealed, the General Assembly was embarrassed by federal, state and local political scandals. Legislators were calling for public financing of elections, and limits on both campaign contributions and spending. In all the hubbub, former Del. Charles Krysiak, B-Baltimore, submitted a bill to repeal the expenditure list. No one testified on the measure, which was seen as a technicality. Former election board administrator Willard A. Morris wrote that the itemization served no legitimate, effective purpose.
Lawmakers were on their own until 1983, when the attorney general wrote, in response to a senator’s query, that campaign money should be used for expenses related to campaigning.
State prosecutors used that guideline in the 1990 conviction of Anthony J. Cicoria, a former Prince George’s County councilman, for stealing $65,000 in campaign funds. Cicoria was later pardoned, but the case became the basis of the current law.
Since the mid-1980s, only two state lawmakers have been convicted of abusing their campaign funds. In 1988, Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, D-Baltimore, was convicted of stealing more than $13,000 from campaign funds by double-dipping. Two years later, former Del. Sylvania W. Woods Jr., D-Prince George’s, pleaded guilty to theft and misconduct in office. He was accused of stealing $12,810 in campaign funds.
In the meantime, lawmakers still wrestle with questions over what are legal expenditures.
To Deborah Povich, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, it’s simple.
“Campaign contributions should advance a candidate’s candidacy,” she said. “They should not be used to advance their personal lifestyle.”
Povich said examining how money is spent is important to the entire campaign reform effort because it explains why elections are expensive. “If we could define the reasonable cost of a campaign, we could stop the unlimited spending,” Povich said. “If we continue to let candidates use their expenditures as personal slush funds, there will be no cap on expenditures.” -30-