Campaign Cash Means Trips, Meals And Golf For Some Candidates

NJ.com — Sunday, January 29, 2012

By Matt Friedman / Statehouse Bureau

Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo used campaign funds to pay for hundreds of meals, dozens of golf games, a flight to Puerto Rico and even repairs to his bicycle after taking a spill in a county park.

U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-1st Dist.) used them for a $9,000 trip to Scotland with his family.

And Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), even after leaving his post as Gloucester County freeholder director, used leftover money from that campaign account for expensive meals and spent $756 of it on fancy cigars for supporters.

While it's illegal to use campaign cash for personal use, the politicians say what they did was perfectly proper. They are three of the latest high-profile examples of time honed-tradition in Trenton and Washington.

Good government watchdogs say there's a reason why politicians regularly tap cash from the tills their donors fill: State and federal laws overseeing campaigns are riddled with loopholes — and enforcement is lax.

Candidates are allowed to use campaign dollars to pay for meals and travel as they're related to campaign activities or the every day expenses that come with holding elective office. And the laws give them lots of leeway to justify such spending. DiVincenzo has amassed about $250,000 in expenses on his personal credit cards and reimbursed them with funds from his campaign account since 2002.

"I think they probably are using a very, very broad interpretation of the law," said former Republican state Sen. Bill Schluter, a long-time champion of ethics reform who is vice chair of the state's ethics commission. "This goes back to the basic issue of what are the campaign funds given for? And if a person wants to have a lot of that money and he gets it from big fat cats, is he beholden to them?"

While not revealing with whom he ate, DiVincenzo attorney Angelo Genova said the 110 meals the county executive expensed over a four-month period last year were business-related, as were the more than two dozen golf games and the upcoming Puerto Rico trip on Super Bowl weekend, which Genova said provides "an environment for the exchange of ideas important to the county executive's understanding of the politics of the county and his constituents."

DiVincenzo's records also show how he used $90 in campaign funds to repair his bicycle after crashing it while inspecting a county park in June, and $810 to attend the 2008 U.S. Open tennis matches. DiVincenzo has referred questions about his campaign finances to Genova, who says he will deal with the state's campaign finance watchdog on the matter. South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross said he and DiVincenzo met at the 2008 open to discuss political matters, including the eventual elevations of Sweeney to Senate president and Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) to Assembly Speaker.

Andrews said he followed the letter and spirit of the law on the Scotland trip because it was for a donor's wedding, but he nevertheless decided to donate the money he spent there to charity after The Star-Ledger reported on it in November.

Sweeney said he racked up the expenses because he does not accept gifts and insists on paying for meals that double as political meetings. "I look at it this way: as long as you don't start writing stories about me where I'm having lunch with somebody and they buy me a cheeseburger, and I'm getting accused of stealing, or I'm giving someone a contract because of a cheeseburger," Sweeney said.

He said he gave cigars to those at his dinner during the Chamber of Commerce Washington trip last year. "Each one gets a cigar. And they're good cigars," he said. "I don't smoke."

Jeffrey Brindle, director of the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, says lobbyists rarely wine and dine lawmakers any more because of media scrutiny — and that may be one reason lawmakers are tapping their campaign coffers more often.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, director of New Jersey Citizen Action, said DiVincenzo's spending "reinforces the need for publicly funded elections at all levels, as well as transparency and accountability in the reporting of campaign finances."

Schluter says at the very least, state laws on how campaign contributions are spent — something that affects every politician in Trenton — could be "tightened up tremendously."

But no bills are pending in the Legislature, and it's not part of the host of ethics proposals Gov. Chris Christie is pushing.

"Certainly we wouldn't rule that out, but given the dismal failure of the legislature to address our other ethics and campaign finance reforms, what makes you think there's any chance they would consider this as well?" said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak. "Don't hold your breath."

New Jersey politicians have long used campaign cash for questionable expenses.

Assemblyman Anthony Impreveduto (D-Hudson), who died in 2009, was forced to resign, fined $10,000 and placed on five years' probation in 2005 after pleading guilty to using campaign funds for personal expenses such as income taxes, a daughter's wedding and sports memorabilia.

After serving time in a federal prison for political corruption charges, Former Essex County Sheriff Tom D'Alessio got around the law by creating a charitable foundation, bankrolling it with $1.8 million from his campaign funds and having the charity provide him a salary and perks ranging from a leased Mercedes to a pricey condo on an island off the gulf coast of Florida. A law was later passed banning such maneuvers, but it did not affect D'Alessio.

And former Newark Mayor Sharpe James used almost $100,000 in campaign funds to pay lawyers defending him against federal corruption charges. ELEC is suing James to get him to pay back.

ELEC's Brindle said the laws on the books can work — if his watchdog agency gets enough money to enforce them.

"To be able to really get a handle on this, what we really need are some more staff that can actually review and audit these reports to a much greater extent," said Brindle, whose budget is just over $4 million for 65 staffers.

It can take years before ELEC fines politicians or political parties for wrongdoing. For example, Donald DiFrancesco, a former governor and senate president, paid a $4,650 fine in October for failing to file campaign finance reports — seven years after the commission started investigating.

"I'm disturbed by that, too. We're making every effort to speed things up to the greatest extent possible," Brindle said. "But it really is a combination of things, not only of staffing but that some of these cases are so much more complex these days."

It's no better at the federal level, said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Sloan said Andrews' spending was illegal, and in December filed a complaint against him with the Federal Election Commission.

Sloan says the makeup of the federal commission — three Republicans, three Democrats — often causes gridlocks.

"Part of it is the law isn't clear enough, but part of it is also there isn't tough enough enforcement," she said. "If you made examples of a few candidates, others wouldn't test it."

Fran Tagmire, Andrews' chief of staff, said the campaign has "always followed the law in every respect in every campaign. We would welcome and support any changes in the law that would more clearly define the rules."

Sloan said enacting a law that would clearly state what is and isn't acceptable spending of campaign cash won't solve the problem. "Certainly you can make laws clearer but people will always find ways around them," she said.

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