RICHMOND — Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell bought nearly $9,800 in clothing with money from her husband’s political action committee and tapped into his campaign and inaugural funds to buy $7,600 in mostly unspecified items, according to records and a representative for the PAC.
The spending is legal under Virginia’s lax campaign finance laws, which prohibit the conversion of political funds for private use only when a PAC or campaign committee disbands — not while it is operating.
But the purchases are unusual in Virginia, where campaign finance records indicate that candidates do not routinely dip into political funds to buy personal items such as clothing for themselves or their spouses.
Maureen McDonnell’s use of political donations comes to light at a time when she and her husband, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), are under intense scrutiny for accepting luxury items and $120,000 in loans from wealthy Virginia businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. Federal and state investigators are probing the Star Scientific executive’s ties to the McDonnells, who promoted his firm’s nutritional supplement, Anatabloc. Last week the governor apologized for embarrassing the commonwealth and repaid the loans.
Several gifts that have drawn investigators’ attention seem aimed at polishing Maureen McDonnell’s image as first lady. They are looking into whether the former Washington Redskins cheerleader and mother of five received free cosmetic dental work from a Richmond-area dentist, jewelry from a state delegate and a $15,000 Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree from Williams.
Using political money for clothes helped McDonnell step up her style while her family’s finances were hit by the plunging real estate market.
Bob McDonnell won the 2009 governor’s race as several properties that he and his family bought for a combined $3.84 million at the height of the real estate boom had lost value. Maureen McDonnell complained to officials at Opportunity Virginia PAC that she didn’t have the wardrobe or resources necessary for her new role as first lady, according to a person familiar with the PAC’s operations, who spoke on condition of anonymity to maintain a relationship with the McDonnells.
Maureen McDonnell was given a PAC credit card, according to that person. A representative of the PAC confirmed Friday that the card was provided to the first lady, but he added that she no longer has it. The representative answered questions on behalf of the committee on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing investigations.
Rich Galen, a private spokesman for the governor and first lady on matters related to the investigations, said that Maureen McDonnell was borrowing the clothes, which would be donated to charity after Bob McDonnell completes his term in January. The PAC also said that the items will be returned to the committee and then donated to charity.
Asked in a brief phone interview whether the committee spent money on department-store clothing, Phil Cox, director of the PAC and executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said: “All of the PAC expenditures are publicly available. What’s there is there.” Cox does not sign off on the PAC’s expense reports.
Maureen McDonnell has charged about $9,800 in clothing to the PAC, but that is not obvious from campaign finance reports filed by the committee.
None of the items the first lady put on the PAC credit card was identified as clothing in public records available online through the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. The purchases are billed as “event expenses” and “travel expenses.” At times, however, the vendor listed suggests clothing: Nordstrom, Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and Ann Taylor. In all, the PAC spent $6,300 at those stores.
In those cases where the stores are identified, nothing in the public record links the purchases to Maureen McDonnell.
Her name is listed on three additional PAC expenses totaling about $3,500. But in those instances, the records do not indicate what was bought or where. Instead of clothing stores, the vendor listed is “Maureen McDonnell.” The purchases are identified as “travel expenses” and “event expenses.”
But the PAC representative confirmed that $9,800 in purchases — all of those publicly linked either to the clothing stores or to the first lady — were clothing for her. He said they were bought for official gubernatorial or political events.
She spent $2,379 at Nordstrom over two days in March 2012 and another $535 there a month before that, all to prepare for a trip to California to market Virginia products and attend a Republican Governors Association meeting.
She spent $1,121 in July 2012 at Saks to buy clothes for a gala celebrating the bicentennial of the governor’s mansion.
She spent about $6,000 around the time of McDonnell’s January 2010 inauguration, about half of that for clothing charged to the PAC. The other half: $3,087 that Bob McDonnell’s inaugural committee paid to her for unspecified “event expenses.”
The PAC representative said it was not clear what she bought with the inaugural funds. With the committee now closed and original receipts and other records in storage, he said the answer was not readily available.
Maureen McDonnell also received payments from two other committees associated with her husband. The Bob McDonnell for Governor committee paid her $2,369 in unspecified “event” and “travel” expenses in July and September 2009. Bob McDonnell for Attorney General reimbursed her $1,021 for a camera in August 2007 and $1,104 that December for unspecified “event supplies.”
The representative said he did not know what the camera was for. The nature of the other reimbursements also was unclear because records from those now-closed committees also are in storage, he said. Also unexplained was the $1,100 that Bob McDonnell for Governor spent at Dick’s Sporting Goods over three days in late October 2009.
When a campaign committee or PAC is being disbanded, candidates are prohibited from converting any surplus funds to personal use for themselves or immediate relatives. But while a political committee is running, “there are no restrictions,” said Nikki Sheridan, spokeswoman for the Virginia State Board of Elections.
“If they wanted to use the money to send their kids to college, they could probably do that,” she said. “There is no restriction on clothing, grooming or legal fees unless you’re shutting down your PAC.”
The law is one of the nation’s most lax. Most states restrict personal use at any stage in the life of a political committee, according to Karen Shanton, a legislative studies specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures. But it is in keeping with Virginia’s no-limits, full-disclosure approach to campaign finance generally. The state has no caps on political contributions. And officeholders are allowed to take personal gifts of any value as long as they report those worth more than $50.
State elections officials said it is not unusual for candidates to call asking if they can charge their campaigns for the clothing they wear in the course of running for office. They are told that it is not illegal.
Whether it is a wise public relations move is another matter.
Del. Onzlee Ware (D-Roanoke) drew attention in 2009 for using campaign funds for personal items, including a YMCA membership.
State Board of Elections officials reviewed his spending but concluded there was no violation of the law after the attorney general’s office advised them in writing that the law “does not prohibit the personal use of campaign contributions by candidates or office holders unless or until” they disband their committees.
Even so, it appears to be more the exception than the rule that Virginia politicians use political funds to fill their closets.
U.S. Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has had one clothing expense paid for with campaign funds — $708 at Nordstrom — since he ran for governor in 2004.
State Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), charged a $794 tuxedo from Franco’s Fine Clothier to his campaign account in early 2009 but refunded his campaign in mid-2010. McEachin said he had meant to pay personally for the tuxedo, which he was buying for an Urban League dinner, but accidentally pulled out his campaign credit card. He said he made the refund after discovering the error.
At least a handful of other Virginia candidates have billed their campaigns for relatively modest clothing or tailoring services.
The man Bob McDonnell defeated in 2009, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) charged $42 at Macy’s, $38 in Kohl’s and $84 at Dick’s Sporting Goods in the course of his campaign. All of the purchases were identified on his reports as clothing. He also billed his campaign for more than $500 in dry cleaning charges while he was on the campaign trail.
Deeds said he couldn’t recall what any of the clothing purchases were for, but said they were small and probably related to the difficulties of the hectic campaign pace.
“You’re out and you spill coffee on a necktie in the morning and you have big things to do the rest of the day,” he said, speaking hypothetically. “You’ve got to go out and buy a new necktie.”
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II’s gubernatorial campaign spent $182 at Macy’s in May after the Republican showed up to shoot a TV commercial with two blue shirts.
“[W]e needed the AG in various color shirts, so a staffer went to Macy’s and purchased what was needed,” campaign spokeswoman Anna Nix said via e-mail. “As a practice, the AG does not believe [in using] nor use campaign funds for personal use.”