Gym fees? Utah politicians find loophole in ethics law
Under a law passed two years ago, state officials and candidates are banned from spending campaign donations for personal use. But a loophole allowed them last year to use the money for golf, gym memberships, rent, express lane passes, clothes, luggage and wedding gifts.
Some also used donations Â which come largely from special interests that seek to influence legislation on church contributions, dry cleaning, child care, home Internet and computers, and apparently even tickets to the top of the 100-story John Hancock Building in Chicago.
How is that not personal use? The law allows such spending if it is "for a political purpose" for campaigns, or "to fulfill a duty or activity of an officeholder."
So, for example, if a round of golf is primarily for personal use, campaign money cannot be used legally; but if it has some campaign or officeholder purpose such as talking business or politics while golfing, donations can be used.
Under such guidelines, Gov. Gary Herbert used donations for a $60 round of golf, paid to Val Hale, Utah Valley University vice president for university relations. Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, whose office is in charge of overseeing campaign and election laws, used donations to pay the Utah Hospital Association $50 for a round of golf.
A review of year-end campaign-disclosure forms by The Salt Lake Tribune shows that with that loophole, about a third of all campaign expenditures made during non-election 2011 went to items that personally benefitted politicians or their friends.
"That's a pretty big loophole," said Kim Burningham, a former legislator who is head of Utahns for Ethical Government, which is trying to put an initiative on the ballot this year to tighten ethics rules.
Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, who sponsored the law two years ago, laments that it doesn't do more ÂÂ but said he did what was politically possible to stop some of the most egregious conversions of campaign funds to personal use of past years, such as when retiring lawmakers sometimes pocketed tens of thousands of dollars leftover in campaign accounts.
"We created a standard that creates a good precedent" aiming to ban personal use of campaign funds, he said. "But it still requires officials to do the right thing. It's just one of those things that they have to decide: Is this the right thing for the public?"
The Tribune analysis shows more than $750,000 of the $2.03 million that state-office candidates spent last year went to items that personally benefitted them or friends. Some of that money was fairly closely tied to official duties Â such as out-of-state travel to national conventions of legislative groups. Other costs seemed much more personal.
For example, Rep. Neal Hendrickson, D-West Valley City, spent $212 on dry cleaning, $537 for "home office Internet" and $192 on a "home office computer." (Politicians overall spent a combined $10,400 on iPads, laptop computers and other home/campaign computers last year.)
Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, spent $143 for express-lane passes (three other lawmakers also bought passes), $232 for "child care for political events," $10 for cuff links, $88 to the Lagoon amusement park for a "legislative Lagoon event," and $33 for "admission" to the Hancock Building in Chicago, plus $33 for "Chicago items" from a business named "Bye Bye Chicago."
Madsen did not return phone calls and emails seeking more explanation about that spending and the $3,100 that his campaign fund appeared to pay to family members for campaign help in the non-election year.
Rep. Jen Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, spent $91 for luggage and $270 for shirts with the Utah House logo (seven House members spent $845 combined on such shirts). Seelig said the luggage is more of a briefcase with a handle that she uses both for personal travel and to carry documents in the Legislature, and the shirts are "official-looking" and help identify her as a legislator.
Among other spending, Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, spent $15 for "gym access during the session" at the Capitol complex. Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, spent $500 for a condominium in Salt Lake City during the legislative session.
Val Bateman, who ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 2010, used some leftover donations to give $1,714 to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He said it was for the church's missionary fund and Perpetual Education Fund.
While the law prohibits candidates from pocketing donations, 15 lawmakers used them to repay a combined $63,700 in loans that they had made to their campaigns. Some of the larger amounts included $30,000 to Rep. Steve Sandstrom, R-Orem, who is running for Congress; $20,000 to Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy; and $5,965 to Rep. Doug Sagers, R-Tooele.
Former House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, who is now a lobbyist, last year donated $31,150 of his leftover donations to other politicians whom he now may be lobbying.
Politicians did something interesting with much of the money they worked to raise for re-election: They gave it away.
That included giving nearly $270,000 to other politicians. Burningham, of the ethics group, especially dislikes that, and what he calls "the passing of money around to buy leadership positions." He notes the initiative his group is pushing would halt the practice.
Burningham said contributors "donate the money to help you run a campaign, not elect somebody else who they may or may not agree with. It seems like a change in the purpose of the money given to the person."
Besides giving to other politicians, candidates also gave about $170,000 to charities Â perhaps building good will with the charities' supporters. Groups that received such money range from Scouting groups to junior livestock shows, schools, churches, homeless shelters, hometown celebrations, clubs, hospitals, fairs and youth sports leagues.
Politicians also gave away nearly $27,000 in gifts. Some are listed as gifts for weddings or Christmas for supporters or colleagues. Some are freebies for constituents who may visit, and some are gifts for visiting dignitaries.
Officials also spent more than $160,000 in out-of-state travel, mostly to conventions of legislative groups. But some took trips to such faraway places as China, Estonia, Israel and Germany.
Officials also spent nearly $12,000 to pay dues to groups they joined, ranging from the National Rifle Association to the Patrick Henry Caucus, chambers of commerce and the Farm Bureau.
After hearing examples of such spending, Cosgrove said he may take another look at the 2-year-old law and see if he can find ways to tighten it.
Burningham's group, meanwhile, is suing the state over whether its ethics initiative qualified to appear on the ballot this year. It would do such things as 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.