Stanley C. Walker, the Democratic dean of the Virginia Senate, has used campaign contributions to repay himself and a company he controls more than $72,000 in expenses during the four years leading up to his reelection effort in November, according to state records.
Walker, 76, defended the payments today as lawful reimbursements for routine expenses such as fund-raisers, meals and computer services, but D. Nick Rerras, 42, Walker's Republican opponent on Nov. 2, said the payments were emblematic of Virginia's loose campaign finance laws, which some legislators have vainly tried to tighten over the years.
"I have an auditor and a finance committee, and they find nothing wrong with it," said Walker, of Norfolk. "None were for personal purposes and they've always been accepted by the Board of Elections," the Richmond-based state entity that oversees political spending in Virginia.
Walker said he is "getting a little flak from it" on the campaign trail and that Rerras had sought to raise "suspicions" about where the money had gone.
"But it's within the letter of the law," Walker said.
Rerras, a computer company employee who made a solid showing against Walker four years ago with far less money than the six-term incumbent, said he was not challenging the legality of Walker's reimbursements.
"I'm not accusing him of that," Rerras said, "but when a public servant is reimbursing himself to that extent, the public deserves better.
"The current system lacks accountability," Rerras added. "It's vague and wide open."
Steve Calos, executive director of the citizens' group Common Cause of Virginia, said the Walker reimbursements appeared to be legal.
"As with all our campaign finance laws, everything goes in Virginia and this is a case in point," Calos said.
Courtly and silver-haired, Walker is a leading member of a dwindling generation of older Democratic senators.
Walker was elected president pro tempore of the Senate in 1988 and has held onto the largely honorific job even though Republicans narrowly control that chamber. He served several terms in the House of Delegates in the late 1960s and is co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, where its budget-writing powers give members enormous clout.
A spot check of records on file at the state elections board suggests that Walker may be the most reimbursed legislator in Richmond. He or his Stanley Walker Associates Inc. received more than $19,000 this year alone, not far off the total of cash he has on hand for the race against Rerras.
After raising $223,000 for the 1999 election, Walker has only a $22,000 cash balance for the fall campaign. In contrast, Rerras's has $36,000, of which more than $10,000 is from loans to himself, according to campaign reports on file here.
In the 1995 race, Walker spent nearly $195,000 and captured 55 percent of the vote; Rerras spent $52,000 and won 45 percent.
Some of Walker's reimbursements have been large--an $8,600 payment "for political campaign expenses" in March 1998, for example--while others have been as small as $400.
Rerras and Walker agreed in separate telephone interviews today that the payments probably will not prove decisive in two months, but the incumbent's age may be a factor.
Walker said his own polling indicates some voter unease about his continuing in office; Rerras said the age factor is "something the public has to take a look at."