varying degrees, elected officials routinely use their campaign war
chests for lavish trips, fancy meals and luxurious stays at posh
California law prohibits elected officials from using campaign
dollars for personal use. But while a new state law enacted in July 2008
tightened reporting requirements for meals, travel and gifts, some say
it is still too little and that more can be done to ensure politicians
are not using campaign dollars to live high on the hog.
"It was part of an ongoing effort to provide greater
disclosure to the public about how campaign funds were being spent,"
Fair Political Practices Commission Executive Director Roman Porter said
of the July 2008 change in reporting law.
State law, like federal law, gives politicians wide latitude
to use their campaign money in virtually any way they want, as long as
the expenditure is somehow related to political activities.
The new law requires lawmakers to briefly describe the
"political, legislative or governmental purpose" of an expenditure and
report the nature of gifts received, when they were received and who
gave them if they are more than $50.
As to meal and travel expenses, elected officials are required
to be more thorough in their reporting of who benefited from the meals
and travel as well as the dates, locations and purposes of trips and
Porter said the push for new reporting guidelines began in
February 2007 with the appointment of Ross Johnson as chairman of the FPPC.
The enacting of the law in July 2008 coincided with news reports
that then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez had spent tens of thousands of
dollars in campaign money on trips overseas, including more than $5,000
for a meeting at a wine shop in Bordeaux, France, and more than $2,500
for office expenses at a Louis Vuitton store in Paris.
Since then, a cursory review of some lawmakers’ campaign
finance reports shows a "disparate level of compliance," indicating the
new law hasn’t gone far enough to ensure full disclosure, said Carmen
Balber, Washington director of Consumer Watchdog.
"In some reports, you’ll find very specific disclosure … and
in other cases there is no information at all," Balber said. "We
believe a lot more compliance is necessary for candidates so the public
can really know if such expenses are meeting requirements under the law –
that campaign dollars aren’t being spent for personal, instead of
In a 2008 letter to FPPC Chairman Johnson supporting the new
reporting regulations, Balber suggested, among other things, that
lawmakers be required to report their travel itineraries and that new
codes be added on 460 forms for meals, gifts, and golf.
Jessica Levinson with the Center for Governmental Studies in
Los Angeles, who also teaches campaign finance at Loyola Law School,
said campaign dollars can be used in a variety of campaign strategies,
depending on the candidate.
"If they’re in a real dogfight, then funds would be spent on
trying to reach as many voters as possible," said Levinson.
If the candidate is an incumbent, in a relatively safe
district and doesn’t face a significant challenge, then campaign funds
are often spent to boost a candidate’s name recognition and support for
his or her proposals on policy agendas, Levinson said.
Dissemination of slate mailers is another effective way to
reach voters, she said.
Spending campaign money on meals, travel and gifts can help
candidates cultivate important relationships and generate support for
their campaigns. But the expenditures must be done responsibly and
ethically, Levinson said.
She said the situation involving Nunez serves as a perfect
example of what not to do.
"I think he became the poster child for misuse or overuse of
campaign funds," said Levinson. "I think the system can be tempting for
some candidates and give them opportunities to spend more than might be
But she remains optimistic abuse isn’t epidemic.
"I would hope that we can still call it the Fabian Nunez
situation. I hope it doesn’t reach across all levels of governments,"
Levinson said. "I’m just not convinced he’s representative of the
majority of candidates out there."