"The problem is, there's no crime called 'misuse of campaign funds,' " he said. "There's really nothing we can do about it."
The only times they have successfully prosecuted such cases, McDonough said, came when candidates misspent the money and then lied about it on their reports. In 1990, for instance, McDonough's office convicted Anthony J. Cicoria, then a member of the Prince George's County Council, for spending $64,324 in campaign funds to pay the mortgage on an office condominium. The conviction on charges of theft, perjury and tax evasion, McDonough said, came largely as a result not of the spending but because Cicoria's wife made false entries in his campaign report.
Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) used campaign funds to cover lodging for a state trooper who drove him.
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Laws on campaign expenditures vary greatly among other states. Some states, including Virginia, have laws that explicitly ban the use of campaign funds for personal use. Other states have moved to eliminate questionable uses of donors' money.
Iowa bans several expenses common in Maryland, including spending on meals that are not part of campaign events. Many expenditures found on Maryland reports would fail to qualify under rules in Delaware, which lists 18 categories of acceptable expenditures.
Judy Armold, the Maryland assistant attorney general assigned to the State Board of Elections, said her office never has been asked to address the vagaries of the law. "Questions have arisen from time to time," she said. "Unfortunately, there's not much of a body of knowledge in that area."
Lawmakers have said that on occasion, they will ask the elections office for guidance. Busch, for example, said he was offered tickets to this year's sold-out Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament by the University of Maryland. He said he considered using campaign money to buy the tickets and give them to staff members or constituents but that he was cautioned against it.
Hixson said she was cautioned by elections officials about an expenditure five years ago -- she said she could not recall what it was -- and was convinced that the policing of reports is adequate. "You think you're doing the right thing unless you're told otherwise," she said. "If we're not questioned, we continue to do what we're doing."
That has included spending on meals and beverages with fellow lawmakers and legislative staff members. Miller spent $2,657.72 on one meal in January at Da Mimmo restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy. He said in an interview that at least 15 senators attended the dinner, which focused on legislative strategy. "This was not a social event at all," he said.
Busch reported far more frequent spending on meals than Miller, including charges as high as $400 for "beverages and tips," "constituent meals" and "entertainment" at Annapolis restaurants. Busch said that many of the meetings were with fellow legislators or his staff to discuss legislative matters and that they could have been charged to taxpayers but were not.
Busch's campaign reports, like those of several other lawmakers reviewed by The Post, include hundreds of dollars in contributions to charities, schools and other organizations. Most of Busch's contributions were to groups in his legislative district, including $258.30 spent on trophies for a girls' basketball team in 2003.
Hixson, who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, listed more than five dozen charitable contributions during the past two years, including several to national organizations. Among them: the Sierra Club in San Francisco and the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.
Busch argued that spending the money on charities in his district is more virtuous than buying additional yard signs or other campaign materials promoting himself. Asked why those were campaign funds rather than personal charitable contributions, he replied: "I'd be bankrupt."