Lax campaign finance rules allow Pennsylvania state lawmakers to shield spending on food, booze and travel from public scrutiny, and officials often report them as simply credit card payments or expense reimbursements, a report published Tuesday concluded.
A yearlong investigation by the Spotlight PA and Caucus news organizations said disclosure practices can make it very hard for outsiders to determine how legislative campaign donations are spent.
The news organizations said their review of thousands of pages of records indicated state House and Senate candidates spent nearly $3.5 million that can't be fully traced from 2016 through 2018.
They found spending on foreign trips, tickets to sporting events, limousine rides, country club memberships and a DNA test kit.
Pennsylvania's campaign finance rules put no limits on donations, have no explicit ban on using money for personal expenses, and carry minimal penalties for failing to comply. State law requires campaign accounts to be used for "influencing the outcome of an election," a standard that is largely open to interpretation.
The investigation uncovered visits to fancy European restaurants within the $130,000 spent on meals and entertainment by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati; $15,000 in Pittsburgh Penguins tickets by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa; and a state senator, who has since left office, who used campaign cash to buy California wine, a $145 shirt and a $109 DNA test kit.
A lawyer for Scarnati says his description of the spending on public forms, in which he obscured the most spending during the review period, is adequate. Costa says he supports requiring more specifics in how campaign spending is disclosed.
The news organizations sought records under a little-known provision of state law that requires campaigns to retain vouchers for spending over the previous three years, and make them available if anyone asks.
The Caucus and Spotlight PA found more than 4,800 instances of obscured spending by nearly 300 campaigns.