Candidates seeking election to the Maryland General Assembly are using their campaign funds on far more than yard signs, bumper stickers and direct mail.
Last year, when his next election was two years off, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) spent more than $1,500 on flowers for constituents who were ill, had a new baby or lost a family member. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) used campaign funds last fall to pay lodging costs for a state trooper who drove him to a University of Maryland football game in West Virginia.
Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) used campaign funds to cover lodging for a state trooper who drove him.
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Other leading lawmakers doled out thousands of dollars from their campaign accounts for contributions to charities and for meals with staff members and fellow lawmakers. One Maryland delegate, Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery), reported using campaign funds to pay dues to her college alumni association -- in northern Michigan.
As Maryland's ethics laws have clamped down on state lawmakers turning to lobbyists for trips and meals, politicians increasingly are dipping into their campaign accounts to cover entertainment, charitable contributions and what might be called lifestyle expenses, an examination of campaign records shows.
Although state election officials advise that such funds should be used only for election-related expenses, the definition of what constitutes such an expense is being stretched to the point of distortion, watchdog groups have said.
"From what I've seen, the envelope has been pushed, ripped and torn into shreds in some cases," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. "The danger is that this becomes a slush fund for meeting personal obligations."
Although campaign finance laws are being scrutinized in Annapolis this year as in past years, the focus now is entirely on how the money is raised, and from whom. Campaign spending in Maryland, advocates and lawmakers agree, is largely unexplored terrain.
The Washington Post's review of campaign reports included leaders of the Senate and the House of Delegates, many of whom raise and spend campaign funds throughout their four-year election cycle and have faced little more than token opposition in recent elections.
During the past six years, Hixson, who works as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill while not busy with her Maryland legislative work, has reported using more than $9,000 in campaign funds to pay dues at the National Democratic Club, an organization that advertises itself as "a great place to meet with [federal] lawmakers and Hill staff, to entertain clients."
Hixson said that she charges only meals with constituents and Democratic Party officials to her campaign account and that she uses a separate, company membership at the club to cover her lobbying work.
Legislators generally defend such expenditures, arguing that the law allows a broad interpretation of what will enhance their chances of winning reelection, acquiring or maintaining a leadership post -- or one day seeking higher office.
Among the campaign expenses last year of Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery), for example, were the purchase of late-night pizzas for the House during its special session on medical malpractice and $85.31 for his share of a meal with a Maryland lobbyist at an Annapolis eatery. Hurson initially reported the evening with W. Minor Carter as a "dinner with potential donor," but this week he reclassified it on a report as a discussion of running for attorney general next year.
"I was enhancing my ability to get elected to something at some point," Hurson, chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, said when asked about the expenditures. He said, however, that more guidance from election officials on what are appropriate campaign expenditures would be welcome.
Those charged with enforcing election laws have said that the oblique language of Maryland's campaign finance rules means there is little they can do to restrict the spending. Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Thomas M. McDonough said his office has received complaints about candidates using their campaign accounts to buy suits or take trips.