The Post’s View

Virginia’s ethics laws create a vacuum

OVER 18 months ending in June, Timothy D. Hugo of Fairfax, the third-ranking Republican in Virginia’s House of Delegates, charged his campaign committee for almost $30,000 in travel and food expenses — an amount wildly in excess of that charged by other lawmakers. In addition, he racked up $9,400 in cellphone charges, tops in the legislature.

Mr. Hugo insists the charges were legitimate political expenses. He says he runs a “year-round political organization,” even though Virginia’s legislature generally meets for just seven or nine weeks each year and he has faced no serious challenge at the polls since he was elected in 2002.

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It may be that Mr. Hugo’s charges are valid. The trouble is that in Virginia, where flaccid laws and lax rules have given rise to an anything-goes approach to money in politics, there is no way for the state to subject his spending habits to scrutiny, nor those of other elected officials. Expense reports are not audited.

As Virginians await word on whether Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, will face a federal indictment, the response from lawmakers to Richmond’s most lurid scandal in years has been strangely subdued. One reason may be that, in a state whose ethics laws are so flimsy, few are willing to point the finger for fear the accusation may come boomeranging back.

Owing to a rewrite of the state’s campaign finance law in 2006, lawmakers may spend funds from their campaign and political action committees on anything or everything under the sun, including personal expenses — a tanning salon, a night at the ballet, a Caribbean vacation.

Since special interests are often the primary sources of funding for campaign committees and PACs, that means Virginia lawmakers can live off lobbyists for virtually any expense, large or small. It’s all perfectly legal.

As a spokeswoman for the State Board of Elections told The Post’s Laura Vozzella last month, “If they wanted to use the money to send their kids to college, they could probably do that.”

For some state senators and delegates, though not all, the more commonplace practice is to use campaign funds to pay for groceries, gas, restaurant meals, hotel stays and cellphone bills. No doubt, some of that spending is related to political activities. There’s just no way to tell.

The other problem is that Virginia’s Swiss cheese laws enable legal double-dipping. The 100 members of the House of Delegates receive a daily allowance of $170 for food and lodging when they are on official business in Richmond. They also receive a $15,000 annual allotment to cover office expenses (excluding staff, which is covered separately), as well as a gas-mileage reimbursement for weekly trips home during legislative sessions. Yet nothing prevents them from pocketing that money and then charging their expenses to their campaign accounts. Nor would it be illegal if they were to do so.

According to reports available online through the Virginia Public Access Project, Mr. Hugo charged his campaign account $29,943 for travel and food for the 18-month period. The other 139 members of the legislature, including 40 senators, charged an average of $2,378 to their campaign committees for food and travel during the same period. Forty-five legislators, about a third of the total membership, charged less than $500, including many from Northern Virginia.

Mr. Hugo charged his campaign some $6,700 for fuel in nearly 100 fill-ups for the 18-month period. He expensed more than 30 charges, totaling around $2,000, at grocery stores such as Giant and Wegmans.

Over the same period, he charged his campaign more than $9,000 for about 140 restaurant meals — many of them during the legislative sessions, when he was receiving per diems from the state — as well as snacks and sundries at 7-Elevens. Judging by the amounts of the individual charges, Mr. Hugo charged his campaign committee for meals he ate alone as well as with others.

While the legislature was in session, for nine weeks in 2012 and seven weeks in 2013, Mr. Hugo charged his campaign account for nearly 100 separate items — about four times more than any other lawmaker. The charges ranged from $5,800 for hotel rooms to $5 at Burger King.

For the 18-month period, the state paid Mr. Hugo more than $20,000 in per diem allowances, plus $22,500 to cover his office expenses and $2,600 for his travel expenses, according to the House of Delegates Clerk’s office. He also received a $17,500 annual salary as a member of the House.

Mr. Hugo, whose district straddles the line dividing Fairfax and Prince William counties, says he is fastidious about keeping his campaign and personal expenses separate. He insists he does not double-dip.

He attributes the high fuel charges to his gas-guzzling 2004 Dodge Durango, as well as gas purchases by his staff members when they travel, the restaurant charges to meals with constituents, the grocery charges to political events, the $9,400 in cellphone charges to an overpriced Verizon plan (since changed, he says) and the lodging charges to hotel stays for his staff.

Mr. Hugo says his per diem allowance from the state goes to pay for his hotel lodging when he is in Richmond. He says he prefers to charge his campaign committee for restaurant meals rather than to be treated by lobbyists. This is a distinction without a difference: As is the case with other lawmakers, Mr. Hugo’s campaign committee is financed predominantly by special interests: bankers, auto dealers, power companies, mining firms, real estate companies, phone companies, railroads, financial services concerns, beer wholesalers and home builders.

As vice chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee, and a member of the GOP leadership in Richmond, Mr. Hugo is easily able to attract generous donations, which he uses to pay for meals, gas, phones, hotels and the like.

Yet without any independent audit, Mr. Hugo’s unquestionably sky-high charges to his campaign account remain just that: unquestioned. As a matter of public policy, if the McDonnell scandal has taught Virginians anything, it’s that more scrutiny and tighter ethics laws are better than the anemic system now in place.

 
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