State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Stricter campaign finance law? There's a bill for that.

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Feb 18, 2016 6:42 PM
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Legislation that would have made it illegal for the state attorney general to spend campaign funds on her own legal defense has languished in committee for five years.

A bipartisan group in the state Senate has backed a plan since 2011 to make direct campaign expenses the only acceptable use of campaign money. The measure has been introduced and re-introduced since 2011. It has never received a vote.

The Senate bill would allow candidates to spend their campaign funds on "expenses directly and exclusively incurred for the campaign in which the candidate is running." It would not allow campaign accounts to be tapped "for any personal purpose."

The state's campaign finance laws are notoriously woolly, and have been for some time.

Earlier this month, the latest campaign finance report filed by Attorney General Kathleen Kane showed that she siphoned more than $300,000 from her campaign war chest to pay for defense lawyers and P.R. help.

Strictly speaking, that's legal. Current state law allows campaign money to be spent "for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election." Kane was merely joining the small club of former state officials who dipped into their campaign coffers to pay legal bills when they got into trouble. Former state senators Jane Orie, Bob Mellow, and Vincent Fumo are in the same camp.

"The attorney general has followed a well-established precedent," said Chuck Ardo, Kane's office spokesman.

The most recent recorded attempt to change precedent was in April 2014. Philadelphia Democratic Senator Larry Farnese (who holds Fumo's former seat) spoke on the Senate floor, urging his colleagues to advance the plan reforming the state's campaign finance laws.

"Until such a time as we do that," Farnese said, "the public that sent us here to work will continue to see us as nothing more than expensive window dressing or empty suits stealing a paycheck."

Published in State House Sound Bites

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