Earlier this week, SpotlightPA and The Caucus released an article detailing the results of a one-year investigation into how members of the General Assembly hide how the members are spending donations to their political action committees (PACs). What they found was jaw-dropping.
First and foremost, lawmakers are hiding expenditures by bundling them all under vague labels like “credit card payment” without any explanation on the original purchases. According to the article, PACs hid $3.5 million in spending on reports filed from 2016 to 2018. Per Pennsylvania law, PACs are only allowed to spend funds on items that will influence “the outcome of an election.”
What types of expenditures did lawmakers think would affect the outcomes of their elections?
Former Senator Chuck McIlhenny used campaign funds to purchase a $100 DNA testing kit. The President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Joe Scarnati, spent $1,295 on lodging in Germany. Senator Jay Costa spent $15,000 on partial season ticket packages for the Pittsburgh Penguins. To get the full picture, you should read the entire article. The investigation certainly paints a picture that the PACs operated by some members of the General Assembly have become nothing more than slush funds.
An even more disturbing revelation from the article was that Senator Scarnati is trying to force the authors of the article to pay the accountant’s costs for providing the requested documentation:
“Scarnati’s campaign also took six months to provide records and requested that reporters pay $1,800 to reimburse the campaign’s accountant for the time she spent assembling them. The campaign agreed to provide them without the preparation charge after a lawyer working on behalf of The Caucus intervened with the Department of State.
“When more documents were later requested, however, Scarnati’s campaign accountant again billed for her time. The news organizations have paid for copying costs, but are contesting the bill for the accountant’s time.”
It is also worth noting that two of Senator Scarnati’s taxpayer-paid official staff have PAC credit cards and charged tens of thousands of dollars in campaign expenses. His staffers don’t have official campaign roles, per the Senator’s spokesperson.
The article paints a horrifying picture of a system with fundamental flaws related to expense reporting and how funds are spent. At the bare minimum, changes must be made to how campaigns disclose spending, and the accessibility of campaign finance reports must be improved.
In true Harrisburg fashion, shortly after the Spotlight PA article was published language was inserted into a voting reform bill that would make it harder for the public to determine the nature of the spending undertaken by political campaigns:
“The change would remove oversight from the Department of State and leave it up to politicians to respond to requests.
“In lieu of the department’s oversight, the public would be forced to sue in court if campaigns refuse a request, a potentially expensive and lengthy process. Campaigns could also deny requestors access if they make multiple requests for the same records and ‘the repeated requests have placed an unreasonable burden,’ according to language inserted into the bill.”
The bill in question is SB 421, and the amended language is on pages 93 to 96.
UPDATE: On 10/28/2019 the House voted unanimously to strip out the language that would have made it harder to determine how campaigns were spending money.