In Missouri, campaign donors fund phones, sports tickets, golf balls

07/31/2013 6:49 AM

07/31/2013 7:52 AM

It’s good to be an elected official in Missouri, with new computers, iPads, car repairs, luxury travel, even golf balls paid for by political donors.

A Post-Dispatch analysis of political campaign expenses this year has found that — even in a nonelection year — contributions to candidates can translate to perks for officials.

Under Missouri’s campaign finance law, campaign contributions cannot be “converted to any personal use.” But funds can be used for expenses that are related to campaign activities or — once someone is elected — the duties of his or her office.

And state law specifically allows donor-contributed money to go toward “entertaining of or providing social courtesies to constituents, professional associations or other holders of elective office.”

Legislative and statewide officials therefore often turn to their campaign coffers to pay for a wide range of personal expenses that, they argue, are associated with their official or campaign duties:

•  Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who is term-limited, spent $10,220 from his campaign fund on University of Missouri sports tickets this year. He also spent $487 on gifts from Augusta National, the Georgia golf club that annually hosts the Masters.

•  State Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, used $5,500 from his fund to pay for a trip to Brazil with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

•  State Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, was among several legislators to buy a new computer with campaign funds this year, and he charges about $138 a month to his campaign for cellphone usage.

Officials argue that the expenses are legitimate. Moreover, they point out, charging donors is better than charging taxpayers.

“I don’t believe the taxpayers should have to pay for travel for elected officials, so I’m certainly not going to use any variety of tax dollars to pay for it,” Guernsey said.

Based on the Post-Dispatch review of campaign finance reports filed this month and in April, consulting fees and associated costs have made up the bulk of state and local campaign committee expenses — even among legislators and statewide officials not up for election this year.

Meals, payroll, travel and fundraising events — including costs associated with ever-popular golf tournaments — also were among the major expenses for candidates and elected officials.

Members of the state House and Senate receive a base yearly salary of $35,915, plus a $104 daily allowance during session to cover travel and other out-of-pocket expenses. Statewide office holders make from $86,484 (lieutenant governor) to $133,821 (governor) annually.

But there is also a lifestyle boost that comes with holding elected office, and it mostly comes through outside money — campaign funds and freebies from lobbyists.

Missouri places no limits on campaign contributions, which means some elected officials and lawmakers at the top of the ladder can maintain hundreds of thousands of dollars in their funds — even in an off-year — and use that money to supplement costs that they would otherwise have to pay out-of-pocket.

This year, officials have used their campaign funds to buy new computers, iPads, passports and event tickets and to cover seemingly routine expenses.

Combined, campaigns paid more than $31,000 to cellphone companies from April 1 to July 1 to cover phone and data plans, and $26,000 went toward subscriptions to newspapers and online news services.

More than $17,000 was spent on contributions to various charities, which is allowable under the state campaign finance law as long as candidates and their families receive no direct financial benefit in return.

Stacey Heislen, acting executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission, said reports are spot-checked to make sure that the law is followed — including reasons offered for expenses.

“We definitely look to see if it is something that would fall within someone supporting their campaign or that it does somehow relate to their official duties,” she said. “We do review those expenditures as best we can.”

The Ethics Commission in May fined former state Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, for allegedly spending $14,169 in campaign funds on personal items, including nearly $1,800 at a Creve Coeur clothing boutique, $362 for “Scottrade tickets” and more than three dozen trips to Schnucks. Wright-Jones did not testify during the commission’s hearing, and she is expected to appeal the ruling.

Her case, in particular, has raised questions of what expenses are allowed under the state’s broad law.

Nixon campaign spokesman Oren Shur said the governor’s campaign paid for the Mizzou tickets because he “hosted donors and supporters in his (basketball arena) box for various games.”

The gifts from Augusta National also went to donors, Shur said, which would fall in line with state law.

Guernsey, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, said his trip to Brazil focused on agriculture trade.

“Brazil is a very important economy — not only worldwide but to the state of Missouri,” he said. “Agriculture is their No. 1 industry, just like the state of Missouri’s is.”

He said that he and other lawmakers and business leaders who went on the trade trip met with officials there and discussed issues including “how Brazil’s output impacts Missouri’s commodity prices directly.”

“It’s probably one of the top contributing factors to our prices in Missouri,” he said.

It’s not unusual for legislators to accept paid trips to other states or countries. Often, the trips are reported in their yearly personal financial disclosures, or occasionally in lobbying reports.

Guernsey said he was offered a paid trip but decided to use his campaign fund instead because he views the trip as an official duty as a state lawmaker.

In recent years, some have sought to reform Missouri’s campaign finance law and cap contributions.

Guernsey said he disagrees with those efforts.

“I think we have one of the better systems,” he said. “It is completely open and transparent. Every dollar that is received is accounted for. You know exactly how much money is being donated from every entity, individual or business.”

Silvey said strict rules that bar the use of official equipment for campaign purposes mean lawmakers have to walk a fine line that leads to additional campaign expenses.

“There’s a strict separation of what you can do with official equipment and what you can do with campaign equipment,” he said. “If want to correspond in campaign way — I don’t want to have that in any way coming from a state computer.”

Silvey, one of the Legislature’s more tech-savvy members, said he also is actively involved in the design of campaign communication.

“I have a very hands-on approach,” he said.

All 163 seats in the House will be up for election next year, and 17 seats in the Senate — half the chamber.

Silvey, who served eight years in the House before moving to the upper chamber this year, said that the two-year terms in the lower chamber means constant campaigning for those who want to keep their seats.

“It’s always coming right up, every other summer,” he said. “My approach is to spend as little as I can get by with when I’m not in the middle of a campaign.”

Silvey, who doesn’t face re-election until 2016, used $425 from his campaign fund in May to help a school group pay for a trip to the Capitol. He also used his campaign to buy pizza for the group.

“When they called and said they weren’t going to be able to do it — I decided I wanted to help out,” he said, noting that he didn’t actively publicize the payment, which appears in his July finance report. “I just wanted them to come down.”

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