RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia elected officials would be prohibited from spending their campaign funds on personal expenses such as mortgages, vacations or gym memberships under a bill a House subcommittee advanced on a bipartisan basis Wednesday.
Virginia is a national outlier for lacking such a law already. It’s something good governance advocates have long sought but lawmakers at the General Assembly have killed over and over for more than a decade, despite a bipartisan insistence that they want to find compromise on a reform.
“This is a simple guardrail to build trust and confidence,” said Nancy Morgan, an advocate with BigMoneyOutVA, a group that has advocated for a range of campaign finance and transparency reforms.
Morgan pleaded with the panel to “please” advance the bill “so we as citizens don’t have to come back year after year requesting its passage.”
Currently, lawmakers are only barred from converting campaign funds to personal use once they close out their accounts. A previous Associated Press review of the state’s campaign finance system found some lawmakers frequently using campaign accounts to pay for expensive meals and hotels as well as personal expenses.
The bill that advanced from a House subcommittee Wednesday on an 8-0 vote says candidates cannot convert campaign contributions “to personal use,” which is defined as spending on a “commitment, obligation, or expense” that would “exist irrespective of the person’s seeking, holding, or maintaining public office.”
The bill includes a list of expenses that would be prohibited, such as home mortgages, rent, clothing, a non-campaign vehicle expense, a country club membership or a vacation. It also enumerates allowable expenses, which would include child care costs incurred as a direct result of the person seeking, holding or maintaining public office.
The State Board of Elections would investigate complaints and may require repayment if it finds a violation that it determines was not willful. If the board found a willful violation, it would be required to direct the candidate to repay the “amount unlawfully converted” and may assess a civil penalty that would be capped at $10,000, according to the text of the bill.
Chief bill sponsor Democratic Del. Marcus Simon, who estimated it was his 11th time presenting some version of a personal use ban, told the panel he sought to address a common concern raised in conjunction with previous proposals: the possibility of a candidate’s opponent weaponizing the statute, playing “gotcha games.”
The measure contains “safeguards” to prevent that, Simon said, including a requirement that four of five members of the state Board of Elections must be in agreement to find someone in violation. The initial part of the complaint process would also be private, he said.
“We keep all that quiet so that we prevent people from doing things like filing a complaint and then saying, ‘You know, my opponent is under investigation for improper use of campaign funds,’ simply by having made the allegation,” he said.
The personal use ban has some high-profile support this year: Senate Democratic Leader Scott Surovell, who is one of many co-patrons of Simon’s bill, said in an interview ahead of session that this would be the year a bill gets to the governor’s desk.
“Personal use is going to pass this year. We’ll see if the governor agrees we shouldn’t be able to George Santos our campaign funds,” he said, in reference to the scandal-plagued former Republican congressman from New York. Santos was expelled in December and has been accused in court — he pleaded not guilty — and by an ethics panel of exploiting his position for his own gain.
Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s press team would say only that the governor will review any legislation that comes to his desk. In the subcommittee hearing, elections commissioner Susan Beals said her department had no position on the bill but would need two new positions to carry out new work the measure would create, including performing the role of issuing advisory opinions about what expenditures would or would not be legal.
Asked ahead of session about the measure’s prospects in the House of Delegates, Speaker Don Scott, a Democrat, was more circumspect than Surovell. In an interview, Scott said he would want to see a final product before committing to supporting a ban.
Some candidates or would-be candidates are not financially secure and use their campaign money to supplement what they need around child care, auto care and other expenses, he said.
“We don’t want to make it where only the elite can serve. … I think we need to be very careful,” he said.
In addition to Morgan, a representative from the League of Women Voters of Virginia and several citizen advocates spoke in favor of the bill. No one spoke against it.
The measure now goes to the House Appropriations Committee. It would have to clear that committee and both full chambers before going to Youngkin.