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Campaign Finance

From the archives 2019

Citing Spotlight PA/Caucus probe, top lawmaker pushes limits on campaign donations, stricter disclosure rules

by Sam Janesch, The Caucus and Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA |

State Sen. Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) is pushing a sweeping campaign finance reform bill that would, among other changes, ban using campaign cash for personal use and require candidates to better describe their expenses on public forms.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff

HARRISBURG — A Pennsylvania lawmaker is proposing sweeping campaign-finance reforms that would set limits on political contributions, increase transparency and ban candidates from using campaign cash for their personal benefit — issues at the heart of a yearlong investigation published this week by The Caucus and Spotlight PA.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa on Friday said his bill would, among other changes, establish campaign donation limits for the first time in Pennsylvania, and impose more accountability for spending by elected officials and others running for office. For instance, the measure would require candidates to submit credit-card statements with their regularly filed campaign finance reports and ban the use of gift cards that can be used to further shield expenses.

It would also further define and prohibit a candidate’s “personal use” of campaign funds, and it would give the Pennsylvania Department of State more oversight in responding to public requests for campaign records.

“Recent media reports have also shown that the use of credit cards and gift cards have provided campaign committees with a method to obscure from public view how political action committee money is being used,” said Costa, a Pittsburgh Democrat who has unsuccessfully pushed similar measures for nearly a decade. “In many cases, the expenses may be crossing the line into personal use, but because it’s difficult or impossible to see what the expense are, there is no accountability.”

Costa’s bill was unveiled in the wake of an investigation published this week by The Caucus and Spotlight PA that found lawmakers have used credit cards, gift cards, and self-reimbursements to shield almost $3.5 million in campaign spending in recent years.

Those expenses included foreign trips, country club memberships, lavish dinners, alcohol, and even a DNA test kit. They were not disclosed in public reports and 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.

Legislative leaders had some of the most obscured spending during the years reviewed, with Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R. Jefferson) topping that list. Costa also came in near the top — using his credit card to spend almost $15,000 on partial season ticket packages to Pittsburgh Penguins games, which he said were for supporters, and 125 Pittsburgh Penguins hats for $3,125, which he said were a “measure of appreciation and good will” for Senators and staff.

His reform proposal would need to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate, whose top leadership this week first pushed to reduce oversight of campaign spending and reporting — before abruptly reversing course a day later.

In a tweet Friday, Scarnati wrote: “I stand with @Senatorcosta’s goal of strengthening the current law to improve transparency for campaign disclosure in PA.”

Both the previous and new versions of his bill would define “personal use” to include home mortgages and rent, clothing, non-campaign vehicle expenses, country club memberships, admission to sporting events, vacations and non-campaign related trips and more.

The bill would also limit individual donations to $1,500 for candidates for the General Assembly, Common Pleas courts, and county or local offices. Individual donations to statewide candidates would be capped at $5,000; political action committees would be limited to $10,000 per candidate.

Pennsylvania is the only state that neither explicitly prohibits candidates from spending campaign cash for personal use nor limits contributions to campaigns, according to a nationwide survey by The Caucus and Spotlight PA.

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