A congressman could go to prison for misusing campaign funds. What he did is totally legal in Virginia.

By: - December 5, 2019 12:01 am
A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Sept. 11, 2018)

A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Sept. 11, 2018)

At first, U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., tried to dismiss scrutiny of his unusual campaign spending habits as a “witch hunt.” 

But after federal prosecutors gathered evidence showing Hunter and his family members had taken $250,000 in campaign funds to pay for personal golf outings, vacations, meals, video games and gas, Hunter pleaded guilty this week to one count of conspiracy.

He’s expected to resign from Congress and is facing up to five years in prison. But if a Virginia lawmaker used his or her campaign money the same way, they’d have no such problem.

Though federal campaign finance laws prohibit using political funds to cover unrelated expenses, Virginia has no such rule for candidates running for state and local offices. That means Virginia campaigns don’t have to be meticulous about making sure candidates don’t use their political account — often filled by business interests and wealthy donors — as a personal piggy bank.

In another contrast with federal law, Virginia’s rules place no limits on contribution size.

State lawmakers have made several attempts over the years to ban the personal use of campaign funds. In 2015, an ethics commission convened by Gov. Terry McAuliffe recommended doing it. The idea has gotten some bipartisan support, but it still hasn’t happened.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, plans to reintroduce the proposal next year. He said the Hunter situation can only help him make the case.

“You have the kind of conduct that everybody agrees should be illegal and everybody thinks should be punished,” Simon said. “And yet in Virginia we don’t really have a tool to do that.”

Under existing state law, candidates are only barred from using campaign funds for personal use after they’ve closed their campaign account.

No politicians in Virginia appear to have abused the system to the extent Hunter did. But lax reporting requirements make it difficult to determine whether restaurant visits, Target runs or Amazon purchases had a legitimate campaign purpose or not.

Candidates for state and local offices have to report where they get their money from and how they spend it. Those reports don’t have to be supported by receipts or other documentation detailing exactly what was purchased or who was doing the buying.

In the 2018 Hunter indictment, federal prosecutors included a clear statement about the purpose of the law they said the congressman violated.

“This restriction helps prevent donors from exercising undue influence over candidates and federal officeholders,” they wrote.

Most other states ban the personal use of campaign funds, but some have recently amended their rules to allow exceptions for child care, eliminating a barrier for many women considering running for office. Federal Election Commission guidelines also allow candidates to use political funds for child care needs arising from their campaign activity.

With Democratic majorities set to control both state Senate and the House of Delegates in 2020, Simon said he expects his bill to pass in some form.

“It’s not going to have universal Democratic support. Nor is there universal Republican opposition,” Simon said. “But I do think, given that we’ve got Democrats in charge on both sides, this is something that will pass.”

In previous General Assembly sessions, the proposed ban has run into opposition from skeptical lawmakers who argued that — given the all-consuming nature of campaigns —  it was too difficult to draw a workable legal distinction between personal and political spending, particularly on things like clothes, meals and gas.

Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled House passed a ban on a 99-0 vote. It failed in a state Senate committee.

The House bill, sponsored by Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, would have punished violators with a civil penalty of up to $250. Under that version, the State Board of Elections, not the courts, would review whether a questionable expenditure had a campaign connection or not. Complaints could only be filed by campaign donors, and candidates would be given an opportunity to reimburse their campaigns to settle the issue. If a complaint was deemed frivolous, the person who filed it could be hit with a $250 fine.

Simon said some of those provisions were necessary compromises to get Republican support for the bill, but a “more robust” version could pass in 2020.

“Obviously, we still have to pass some safeguards to prevent it from being misused as a political cudgel and not a legitimate watchdog sort of thing,” Simon said. “But we’ve looked at it to make sure we get the bill we want.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]