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Under Virginia’s flimsy finance laws, the first lady’s use of McDonnell campaign funds is legal.
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
The revelation that Virginia’s first lady bought nearly $9,800 in clothing with funds from her husband’s political action committee is just the latest public relations headache for embattled Gov. Bob McDonnell.
The news of Maureen McDonnell’s shopping sprees, reported over the weekend by The Washington Post, won’t help the governor rehabilitate his image as he limps through the final months of his term. But perhaps McDonnell can find consolation in the fact that such extravagant spending is perfectly legal, thanks to Virginia’s almost-anything-goes campaign finance laws.
Virginia puts no limits on the amount of money a candidate can take from a single donor, and almost no restrictions on how candidates spend their campaign funds. State law does not prohibit personal use of campaign funds until a candidate has closed his or her campaign account, a step that occurs when a candidate is no longer running for the same office. Only then does the state board of elections have the authority to investigate.
If this sounds familiar, remember that Roanoke Del. Onzlee Ware has endured scrutiny for questionable campaign expenditures during his tenure in the House of Delegates. In 2009, Ware was the target of a complaint filed with the board of elections accusing him of improperly documenting reimbursements to himself, failing to fully disclose payments to campaign workers and diverting campaign funds for personal use. The board merely asked Ware to file amended reports to more fully explain the expenditures.
The flap didn’t immediately change Ware’s spending habits. In the first six months of 2010, he spent $7,775 from his campaign treasury on travel and meals, including $3,167 on rental cars.
But the law doesn’t demand a great deal of specificity from candidates. A department store shopping spree can be reported as nothing more than an “event” expense. A weekend at a luxury bed and breakfast can be charged as a campaign “travel” expense.
The scandal swirling around McDonnell should be enough to shame the General Assembly into enacting overdue ethics reforms in 2014. Those reforms should include clear campaign finance rules that prohibit candidates from using their war chests as personal piggy banks.
At the very least, lawmakers should require candidates to fully disclose how they spend their campaign cash. Even the fattest fat cat might want to know if his check is helping a candidate win an election, or just helping a politician’s family keep up with the Joneses.
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