Campaign Finance

How an investigation uncovered nearly $3.5M in dark spending by Pa. lawmakers

by Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Brad Bumsted of The Caucus |

Reporters for The Caucus and Spotlight PA spent a year requesting and analyzing thousands of credit card statements and receipts for Pa. legislative campaigns to uncover examples of lavish and outlandish spending.
SARA SIMON / Spotlight PA

Show me the receipts.

That was the basis of a year-long investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA that found Pennsylvania lawmakers, operating under some of the weakest campaign finance laws in the country, obscured nearly $3.5 million in campaign spending from 2016 through 2018.

Charges included lavish dinners, foreign trips, clothes, liquor, sports tickets and country club memberships, the investigation found.

In many cases, those expenditures were listed on publicly available campaign finance documents with broad descriptions such as “credit card” or “campaign expenses” and a total amount, with no other details.

State election law requires candidates to keep records of credit card expenses, but they don’t have to disclose those details unless someone specifically requests them. So reporters for The Caucus and Spotlight PA asked for the receipts.

The effort began in July 2018, when reporters noticed thousands of dollars’ worth of Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati’s campaign credit card expenses listed as meals, travel, lodging, supplies or gifts with little detail on how that money was spent.

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The reporters requested to review receipts for the expenses through the Department of State, which oversees campaigns. The department then made the request to the campaign, which is supposed to provide access within 30 days. It took six months to get the records.

Reporters sought to contextualize Scarnati’s obscured credit card spending by comparing it to other legislative campaigns. Using a database built by The Caucus, they identified nearly 300 other campaigns that obscured spending from 2016 through 2018, and then sought records for the 25 campaigns with the greatest totals. Those requests resulted in roughly 3,600 pages of documents, including receipts and credit card statements turned over by the campaigns.

A few campaigns responded almost immediately and provided records, while others took months. Still other campaigns provided only a few records. Although campaigns are required to keep receipts, there’s no penalty if they don’t do it.

Written questions were sent to about two dozen campaigns that had the most obscured spending. About half responded, and of those, some ignored the specific questions from reporters and instead sent short statements.