Pennsylvania’s legislators have tapped their campaign accounts for everything from the mundane to the extravagant to the outright bizarre.
A year-long investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA uncovered nearly $3.5 million worth of campaign expenses that could not be fully traced to the ultimate recipients based on publicly available campaign finance reports.
Under Pennsylvania election law, campaign accounts must be used for “influencing the outcome of an election.” But what qualifies is largely open to interpretation, and too often, campaign finance reports don’t contain enough information for the public to make a determination.
That’s a “loophole big enough to drive a Mack truck through,” said Larry Otter, a Bucks County attorney and election law expert.
As part of the investigation, The Caucus and Spotlight PA found more than 4,800 instances of obscured spending by nearly 300 campaigns. The news organizations then requested additional information from the campaigns with the most dark spending. Here are 10 of the more notable expenses:
Trip through Europe
At least $15,300 spent on stops including London, Brussels, Austria and Munich by three Senate campaigns in 2016. The sojourning senators — Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks) and Rich Alloway (R., Franklin) — ended their trip in Germany during Oktoberfest. Read more about the trip and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it.
Open bar and hors d’oeuvres for purchased for $3,797 by Alloway’s campaign for the former senator’s birthday. The event was for 80 people at the Orchards, a restaurant in Chambersburg in his district. The menu included crab balls, meatballs, veggies, a fruit and cheese display, tiropita, spanakopita, scallops with bacon, buffalo shrimp and a $50 birthday cake.
Pittsburgh Penguins hats
125 hats purchased for $3,125 by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) over back-to-back Stanley Cup years in 2016 and 2017. Costa’s campaign said the Penguins had just won the Stanley Cup and gifting the team hats to senators and staff was a “measure of appreciation and good will.”
» SIGN UP for Spotlight PA’s free weekly newsletter, The Investigator, and receive exclusive, behind-the-scenes looks at our work, plus a roundup of only the best journalism across Pa.
Two pairs purchased for $223 by Rep. Chris Sainato (D., Mercer) in November 2018 for walking “door to door” in the next election. “You go through them in a year,” Sainato said, claiming the shoes were a legitimate campaign expense.
Senate chamber photo
Purchased with a gold-plated frame for $193, a parting gift for former Scarnati aide Casey Long. He left for the Long Nyquist lobbying firm founded by his father, Mike Long, and later Todd Nyquist, another former top Senate GOP aide.
Ralph Lauren shirt
Purchased for $146 by McIlhinney’s campaign. He said he bought the shirt in fall 2017 to wear at that year’s Pennsylvania Society annual wine-and-dine gala in New York City in December.
DNA test kit
Purchased for $109 in April 2016 by McIlhinney. He said he sought ancestry verification following a Senate debate “in which I made statements concerning my forefathers.” He didn’t elaborate. One month before he purchased the DNA kit, McIlhinney co-sponsored a Senate resolution designating March 2016 as “Irish American Heritage month.” In separate written responses to the Caucus and Spotlight PA on another issue, McIlhinney referred to ”my Irish heritage.”
Ugly sweater contest
Gift card prizes purchased for $75 by Scarnati’s campaign in December 2015. Lawrence Tabas, a lawyer for Scarnati’s campaign, said the event used campaign money for the prizes to thank Scarnati staff members who work with the campaign while off the clock.
Purchased for $30 by former Rep. Dom Costa (D., Allegheny) to adorn a plastic skeleton in a cardboard coffin displayed at Costa’s Halloween fund-raising party, according to his wife, Darlene, the campaign treasurer. “She [the skeleton] was Queen for a Day,” Darlene Costa said, referring to a TV show in the 1950s and `60s. The Costas went all-out at their Halloween gigs, she said, and they were a significant fund-raising tool for the campaign.
Ultraviolet black-light detector
For “Dog Urine, Pet Stains, and Bed Bug,” purchased for $10 by Scarnati’s campaign. One of a number of gifts purchased for a Senate “Bring Your Child to Work Day” in 2018.