Government & Politics

Candidates and donated campaign cars — practical or unethical?

Missouri state Sen. Ryan Silvey received a Ford F-150 as a gift from the Missouri Automobile Dealers Association. Silvey gets to use it for three months free of charge, then he’ll give it back after the election. The gift is reported as a $500-a-month in-kind donation to his campaign.
Missouri state Sen. Ryan Silvey received a Ford F-150 as a gift from the Missouri Automobile Dealers Association. Silvey gets to use it for three months free of charge, then he’ll give it back after the election. The gift is reported as a $500-a-month in-kind donation to his campaign. Twitter

When it came time for Ryan Silvey to run for re-election, he knew one thing for sure.

“This election, there’s only 1 choice for a campaign ride,” Silvey, a Kansas City Republican seeking his second term in the Missouri Senate, tweeted last month. “@Ford F-150 built in (Kansas City) by @UAWLocal249.”

But he didn’t spring for the truck out of his own pocket. And his campaign didn’t pony up for the new ride.

The truck is a gift from the Missouri Automobile Dealers Association, a Jefferson City-based trade group with 21 registered lobbyists working in the state Capitol. Silvey gets to use it for three months free of charge, then he’ll give it back after the election. The gift is reported as a $500-a-month in-kind donation to his campaign.

“They did it for me four years ago, too. I had a Jeep,” Silvey said. “It was an idea I came up with, and I just asked for it like you would for any cash contribution.”

Silvey appears to be the only lawmaker the Missouri Automobile Dealers Association is providing with a car.

But the basic arrangement itself isn’t unique.

Numerous Missouri candidates have accepted cars as donations over the years, typically from a local auto dealer. Exactly how many is difficult to quantify. The donors must report the expense as an in-kind donation to campaigns, but the disclosure forms don’t specify what the money is actually paying for, making it difficult for the public to track.

In lieu of a gift, other candidates looking for a car simply purchase vehicles outright with campaign funds.

In the race for governor, Democrat Chris Koster’s campaign purchased a vehicle in 2013 for $50,000. Republican Eric Greitens uses an SUV given to the campaign by Gary Crossley Ford in Kansas City, a donation that so far has totaled around $52,000.

Republican candidate for state treasurer Eric Schmitt spent $40,000 on a Ford F-150 last year. His Democratic opponent, Judy Baker, says she uses her personal vehicle for the campaign.

Schmitt’s campaign spokesman, Rich Chrismer, said buying a campaign car makes sense for statewide candidates because they end up “logging tens of thousands of miles across Missouri.”

“It is very common for campaigns to purchase a designated campaign vehicle for travel, sign deliveries, parades and other campaign activities,” Chrismer said, “and it’s a huge cost savings when compared with air travel, rental cars or mileage reimbursement.”

Rep. Mike Colona, a Democrat representing a district in St. Louis, has spent $400 nearly every month from his campaign account for two years on a car lease. He’s barred from running for re-election this fall because of term limits.

State Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat running for re-election this fall against Libertarian Jeanne Bojarski, said buying a car makes just as much sense for legislative candidates as those running statewide. After years of using his personal vehicle for campaign activities, Holsman’s campaign spent $18,900 last month on a 2009 hybrid GMC truck.

“I drive every day,” Holsman said. “Every day I’m either engaged in campaign or official activities. I drive across the state to help other candidates out. I have donors in other counties that I visit. I drive all over the state. Being a senator in Missouri doesn’t mean you’re confined to just your district. And even within my district, I’m driving every day.”

Holsman said buying a campaign car is more transparent than accepting one as a donation, which is another reason why he decided to go that route.

Unsurprisingly, the idea of cars as gifts to elected officials — even short-term gifts — isn’t without its critics.

John Messmer, a professor of political science at St. Louis Community College-Meramec and founder of Missourians for Government Reform, said the arrangement is an example of lawmakers demonstrating a “brazen disregard for anything remotely ethical when it comes to special interest largesse.”

Missouri remains the only state with the combination of no limits on campaign contributions and no limits on lobbyist gifts to elected officials, Messmer notes. Attempts to change that fizzled during the 2016 legislative session.

“There appears to be no personal gift or contribution to a campaign that is off limits to the current legislature,” Messmer said. “They are totally oblivious to the criticism. These automobiles are gifts. And as we saw in the last legislative session, the majority lacked the courage to do anything about this unlimited chance to bribe public officials.”

Wally Siewert, director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said it makes sense for campaigns to have their own vehicles. And even if it looks odd to the average voter, accepting a car as a donation isn’t all that much different from other kinds of donations.

“In-kind donations of everything from spaces to cakes are a standard on the (campaign) trail,” he said. “Cars, while more conspicuous, don’t necessarily fall outside that mold.”

But extravagant campaign spending — buying an expensive, brand new car — should raise eyebrows, he said. And one question that hovers over the issue is what happens to the vehicle when the campaign is over.

“If (the car) is being used without an active campaign going, even if they have a campaign account open, it is very difficult to imagine the vehicle not being a private benefit,” he said.

If a candidate closes his or her campaign committee, then any vehicle that’s been purchased must be either sold for fair market value, donated to a charitable organization or contributed to another political committee, said James Klahr, executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission.

But if a candidate switches the purpose of his or her committee after an election — for example, from state legislative race to statewide office — then the candidate can keep the vehicle. A recent advisory opinion by the Missouri Ethics Commission reinforced that it is legal for campaigns to buy vehicles, suggesting that candidates “consider a travel log as proof that the vehicle is being used for appropriate purposes.”

During her unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, Bev Randles purchased a vehicle for $29,000 in July 2015. After the primary was over last month, her campaign sold the car for $17,500.

The hassle of having to sell the car after his campaign concluded was one of the factors Silvey said he considered when seeking the car from the Missouri Automobile Dealers Association. He won’t need a campaign car after the election, he said, so why buy one?

Besides, in Missouri’s no-limit campaign funding system, he said, getting $500 a month from an interest group pales in comparison to accepting six-figure checks.

“I don’t see how this is any worse than people who take $100,000 checks or $1 million checks. You can do a lot with a $1 million check,” he said, later adding: “I could have asked (the auto dealers association) for $40,000 or $50,000 to buy an F-150, but this probably works better for both of us.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock