The most powerful lawmaker in the Pa. Senate, Joe Scarnati, dined at the St. Peter Stiftskulinarium restaurant in Austria in September 2016 and charged $246 to his campaign account. State law requires campaign money to be used for “influencing the outcome of an election,” but what qualifies is largely open to interpretation.
Angela Couloumbis has covered government, politics, courts and crime for The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996. She has reported on forest fires in the Rocky Mountains, riots in Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati, the mob’s effort to infiltrate city hall in New Jersey’s poorest city and the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
For the past 13 years, she has focused on government and politics in the Pennsylvania State Capitol, shedding light on backroom dealing and corruption. She was part of a two-member reporting team that, in 2014, exposed a secret effort by the state Attorney General’s office to shut down an investigation into lawmakers who accepted envelopes stuffed with cash from an undercover government informant. The reporting led to a series of resignations and criminal convictions over several years. She has spent the past 18 months focused on investigative reporting on the #metoo movement in Pennsylvania. Her coverage has included projects on secret, taxpayer-funded sexual harassment settlements in the Legislature and state government.
Michael Wereschagin is an investigative reporter, freelancer and author living in Pittsburgh. He works primarily for The Caucus, a Harrisburg-based watchdog publication covering state politics and policy.
A stone’s throw from the Salzburg Cathedral in the Austrian city stands the St. Peter Stiftskulinarium restaurant, a 1,200-year-old icon partially carved into a rock face. Inside, the chefs serve up pumpkin dumplings with wild broccoli, venison with king oyster mushroom and beef tartare with fig and summer truffle.
The restaurant touts itself as the oldest in Europe and is said to have been visited by Christopher Columbus and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. On a warm, late September day in 2016, the chefs served another dignitary of sorts: Joe Scarnati, the most powerful lawmaker in the Pennsylvania Senate.
Scarnati was 43 days from re-election and 4,300 miles from his constituents in his rural district along Pennsylvania’s northern tier. But records show the $246 bill was charged to his campaign credit card. So were other stops on his European trip, including in Germany, where he dropped $1,295 on lodging, and in Belgium, where he spent $152 at an Italian restaurant near Bruges’ historic city center.
Under Pennsylvania election law, campaign accounts must be used for “influencing the outcome of an election.” But what qualifies is largely open to interpretation. For Scarnati, a Jefferson County Republican with enormous influence over how tax dollars are spent, it’s the kind of dining on someone else’s dime that might have given voters pause — had they known about it.
A year-long investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA found lawmakers across the state are shielding sometimes lavish campaign spending by not reporting the details to the public, making it extremely difficult for voters and donors to assess how the money was spent and if that spending was appropriate.
From 2016 through 2018, state House and Senate candidates spent nearly $3.5 million that cannot be fully traced based on the information they publicly disclosed, according to thousands of pages of records obtained by the news organizations. Charges included foreign trips, sports tickets, limos, lavish dinners, fine wines and liquor, country club memberships and a DNA test kit.
In many cases, the expenditures were listed on publicly available campaign finance documents with entries such as “credit card,” “meals” or “travel,” and a total amount, with no other details. In other cases, expenses were listed in reports simply as a “reimbursement.”
“It seems to me that when somebody digs deep into their pockets to contribute to a political campaign, my guess is that they want it to be for policy as opposed to ensure that someone gets beers and brats in Germany,” said Terry Mutchler, a First Amendment lawyer and former director of the state Office of Open Records. “A 12th grader can figure out that there is a problem here and that it leaves room for gaming the system.”
Pennsylvania lawmakers operate under some of the country’s weakest campaign finance laws. The state is the only one with neither contribution limits nor an explicit ban on spending campaign cash for personal use, according to a nationwide survey by The Caucus and Spotlight PA.
Over the years, Pennsylvania state lawmakers have dismissed efforts to impose more restrictions, arguing they are unnecessary as long as details about where the money comes from, and how it is spent, are available to the public.
But the investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA found lawmakers are falling well short of their end of the bargain.
House Speaker Mike Turzai, R., Allegheny, used a credit card to buy more than $3,500 in gift cards, for which no other documentation was available.
The campaign of Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D., Allegheny, spent nearly $15,000 on partial season ticket packages to Pittsburgh Penguins games over three years, which his campaign said he gave away as gifts. His public disclosure forms listed them as “expense reimbursement – event items,” “expense reimbursement – event prizes, etc.,” and “expense reimbursement – misc./labor lunch/breakfast mtg & event items.”
Former Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R., Bucks, used campaign money to pay for country club memberships, wine from California vineyards, a $145 Ralph Lauren shirt and the $109 DNA test kit, records show. Those were among a litany of purchases reported simply as “campaign expenses,” “storage,” “phones,” “fundraiser,” and other vague descriptions.
Asked about the lack of detail in their reports, some legislators vowed to be more transparent, while others denied there was a problem.
Scarnati’s campaign obscured the most spending during the period reviewed. Lawrence Tabas, a prominent Republican lawyer who responded on Scarnati’s behalf, said all of the expenses were related to campaigning and descriptions of them on public forms were “adequate.”
Scarnati’s “committee has complied fully with both the spirit and the letter of the law,” said Tabas, who in July was elected chairman of the state Republican Party. Tabas also provided letters from auditors stating the campaign complied with “certain provisions” of the law, though it’s unclear what provisions they were citing.
The campaign manager for Turzai, Mike Barley, said he did not have records showing how the gift cards were spent, but he said most were for gas and pizza for campaign volunteers. Turzai said in a statement his expenses were legal and “our campaign has worked diligently to provide you with documentation and records in a prompt manner.”
“We will do better” in the future, Barley said.
McIlhinney said itemizing the expenses would “creat(e) a lot of work for the campaign staff.”
“I don’t know why we’d have to get too specific,” he said, adding, “These aren’t tax dollars.”
Mutchler said that’s hardly an excuse.
Saying it “isn’t coming from state dollars” is “like applauding the fact that we clean up after ourselves when we leave a table,” she said.
Weak rules, little enforcement
Pennsylvania state lawmakers earn a minimum of $88,000 a year, with leadership raking in as much as $135,000. That is in addition to perks and benefits and, for some, income from other jobs. Their campaign accounts give them access to tens of thousands of dollars more, in some cases even millions, with few rules preventing them from spending it however they wish.
What’s more, there’s little enforcement of the rules that do exist. Just three people in the Pennsylvania Department of State are responsible for keeping track of roughly 3,000 registered campaign committees and upwards of 10,000 to 12,000 campaign finance filings in busy election years. Its power is “solely administrative,” with no authority to issue advisory opinions or impose fines beyond a $10-per-day late fee for reports, a department spokesperson said.
Campaigns are supposed to keep “vouchers” of their spending for the previous three years, and — if requested by a member of the public — they are supposed to make them available. The state department interprets vouchers to mean receipts, yet there’s no requirement they be itemized, and there’s no penalty if the candidates don’t keep them on file as required.
Reporters for The Caucus and Spotlight PA put that little-known provision of the law to the test, requesting credit card statements and receipts for campaigns with the highest amounts of obscured spending. The records provided form the basis of this investigation.
Allowing lawmakers to shield their spending “is a huge impediment to transparency,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the Washington D.C.-based reform group Public Citizen, adding: “And the greatest damage is that it discourages the public and the press from seeing how campaign funds are spent. It is a very serious obstacle to public information.”
Most states, and the federal government, require far more accountability, experts say.
Louisiana explicitly forbids candidates from saying only that their campaign money was paid to a credit card company or to themselves as reimbursement. The same is true in Connecticut, where rules state that candidates must disclose the ultimate recipient of campaign money rather than bundling expenses into credit card payments or reimbursements.
The Federal Election Commission, which oversees candidates for federal office, mandates itemized credit card expenses to prevent campaigns from obscuring spending.
Tightening restrictions and improving disclosure in Pennsylvania, however, would require the approval of the very same legislators taking advantage of the current rules.
“I see no interest by the Legislature in addressing it even when the law is screaming for reform,” said Larry Otter, a Bucks County lawyer who specializes in election law. “It is not in their enlightened self-interest.”
Running up the tab
As part of the investigation, The Caucus and Spotlight PA found more than 4,800 instances of obscured spending by nearly 300 campaigns. The purchases covered everything from the mundane, such as political consultants and yard signs, to the lavish and downright bizarre.
Take the $146 promotional photo with ’70s trio Tony Orlando and Dawn and the $10 ultraviolet dog urine detector. Or the $5,184 trip to Las Vegas and the $2,123 worth of wine shipped from Napa Valley to southeastern Pennsylvania.
While campaign filings from lawmakers in both parties contained vague or veiled descriptions of credit card and other expenses, most of the state’s top legislative leaders — who raise and spend the most campaign cash — rose to the top, the records showed.
Only three of the six top legislative leaders provided itemized receipts. Others turned over credit card statements and some receipts that did not describe what was purchased.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D., Allegheny, didn’t provide the vast majority of receipts to explain $16,400 in credit card charges and $8,000 in reimbursements to himself from his campaign. The credit card charges included $3,900 in gift cards for Harrisburg area restaurants. The campaign did not document who used the cards.
In a statement, Dermody defended his spending as appropriate and “in full compliance with the law.”
House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, a Republican from Lancaster County, was the only legislative leader who immediately turned over itemized receipts of his campaign’s spending. Most of Cutler’s spending had already been reported on his public forms. He had only $5,292 worth of expenses that were vaguely described as “reimbursements.”
“I approach donor money very similar to how I approach taxpayer money,” he said. “You’ve entrusted me with it for the purposes of re-election. And so I try to ensure that it has a nexus to that.”
Costa, the Senate minority leader, provided itemized receipts upon request. Unlike most other lawmakers, he said he supports requiring state election officials to describe their campaign spending publicly with “more specificity,” including possibly banning the bundling of campaign expenditures.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R., Centre, listed more than $73,000 in expenses as some variation of “credit card payment,” “campaign card 1” or “campaign card 2.”
Had Corman been required to itemize those expenses, the public would have seen $2,290 for 90 bottles of vodka in 2015, $1,908 on 90 bottles of rum in 2016, and $1,908 for another 90 bottles of rum in 2017, all for holiday gifts, according to records his campaign provided.
“Sen. Corman has long advocated for transparency in the political process, including quicker disclosure of donations,” his campaign said in a statement, declining to elaborate on his spending. “The senator’s campaign committee, Friends of Jake Corman, has complied with all campaign finance laws, including disclosure requirements.”
Some legislators took weeks or even months to provide the documents. Former Rep. Dom Costa, D., Allegheny, took six months to produce records and still has not released all of them.
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.
Former Sen. Allen Kukovich, a Democrat from Westmoreland County and leader on campaign finance reform efforts during his decades in the Legislature, said it should not take such an effort by reporters or the public to get basic information on how campaign funds are spent.
“For a regular voter, getting that is just too onerous,” Kukovich said.
Scarnati, the leader of the Senate, topped the list of the nearly 300 campaigns with $246,000 in obscured expenses over the three years, including more than $130,000 described as “meals,” “meal expense” or “meals and entertainment.”
Scarnati’s public campaign finance reports did not reveal that some of that spending was by two of his top taxpayer-paid Senate staffers — Drew Crompton, his chief of staff and general counsel, and Shelly Brown, his staff administrator — who each have a campaign credit card.
They ran up tens of thousands of dollars in expenses, including travel and meals, even though neither has a title or official role in his campaign, according to the records provided to the news organizations. Crompton, for instance, was in Las Vegas in May of last year for a trip he described as, in part, one for fundraising with casino executives.
One of his expenses during the trip: a $470 dinner at the Tao Las Vegas on the same night of his 50th birthday.
Asked about the timing, Crompton said the trip was planned months in advance by Scarnati and that “no disrespect to my boss, but I don’t think he knows when my birthday is.”
Tabas said in a statement that none of Scarnati’s taxpayer-funded staffers have formal roles with the campaign. Some aides, he said, volunteer their time and are not compensated by the campaign. Tabas said the staffers sometimes charge the campaign for expenses that have “multiple purposes, which include the purpose to influence the outcome of an election.”
Crompton said in an interview that when deciding whether to use taxpayer or campaign money for an event that involves mixed purposes, Scarnati’s “golden rule” is: “When in doubt, put it on the campaign.”
Another $24,000 was described in Scarnati’s public reports as “gifts,” “gift baskets” or “gifts and tokens,” with no indication of what the gifts were, who received them or where the senator’s campaign bought them.
The records obtained by the news organizations show some of the gifts were purchased from Scarnati’s personal business, a candy company co-owned with his wife, Amy, as well as Crompton and others. More than $7,000 worth of candy purchases were tucked in his credit card statements. Another $5,700 in similar candy expenses were disclosed publicly.
Tabas said the candy was bought “at cost” and the company made no profit.
Scarnati’s hidden spending also included the European tour as well as other trips to Paris, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, Florida and Louisville — during the Kentucky Derby. The Europe trip was described in public reports with vague descriptions such as “lodging” and “travel expenses,” without any mention of his fine dining and hotel stays on another continent.
Many other details of the trip remain unknown.
Alyssa Biederman contributed to this report.
Coming Wednesday: How top lawmakers’ lavish trip to Europe with donors followed the passage of a landmark law expanding wine sales.