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Campaign Finance

From the archives 2019

Pa. lawmakers abruptly abandon attempt to limit public access to campaign expenses

by Angela Couloumbis |

Hours after an investigation Tuesday revealed millions of dollars in hidden campaign expenses by Pa. lawmakers, a House committee, at the request of GOP Senate leaders, attempted to further limit oversight. But on Wednesday, House Republicans said they would reverse course.
Kalim A. Bhatti/Philadelphia Inquirer

The Republican-controlled legislature abruptly reversed course Wednesday and said it would abandon a controversial measure that could make it harder to find out how lawmakers and other elected officials spend millions of dollars in campaign cash.

The change comes a day after The Caucus and Spotlight PA reported on the proposal.

On Tuesday, the news organizations published the results of a year-long investigation into how lawmakers hide sometimes lavish campaign expenditures from the public. Hours later, a House committee, at the request of Senate Republican leadership, inserted language into a larger voting reform bill that would make it even harder to hold them accountable.

But on Wednesday, House Republicans bucked their Senate counterparts and said they would strip out the new provision.

Mike Straub, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus, said several members raised concerns about the language in the provision, including the fact that it was tacked onto a bill that dealt with voting reforms, rather than one dealing with the state’s campaign finance laws.

» READ MORE: Lavish dinners, sports tickets, and nearly $3.5 million other expenses by Pa. lawmakers you’ve never seen

“The parties involved in negotiating the bill agreed,” said Straub, adding that the provision, at the moment, is not being added to any other legislation.

The investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA found lawmakers use credit cards, gift cards and self-reimbursements to shield sometimes lavish campaign spending. Expenses included pricey dinners, foreign trips, sports tickets, a country club membership and even a DNA test kit.

None of those items were included in publicly available campaign finance reports. They were brought to light only after reporters used a little-known provision of state election law that requires campaigns to keep “vouchers,” or receipts, for the past three years and make them available upon request.

The controversial provision added to the voting bill Tuesday would have removed oversight from the Department of State and left it up to politicians to respond to requests.

In lieu of the department’s oversight, the public would have been forced to sue in court if campaigns refused a request, a potentially expensive and lengthy process. Campaigns could have also denied requestors access if they made multiple requests for the same records and the requests “placed an unreasonable burden.”

But House Republicans were unwilling to go along with the change.

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Legislative leadership in both parties accounted for much of the hidden spending uncovered as part of the investigation by the news organizations. The leader of the Senate, Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), topped the list. When reporters sought access to more detailed spending records, his campaign took months to respond and attempted to charge more than $1,800.

The campaign reversed course after a lawyer for The Caucus asked the Department of State to intervene.

Scarnati’s chief of staff, Drew Crompton, declined to say Tuesday if Scarnati requested or supported the provision that could have made access for the public even more difficult.

In an email exchange Wednesday, Crompton said Scarnati is “supportive of the language being removed from the election bill.”

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