Home Virginia Politics Campaign Finance System: Something’s Rotten in the Old Dominion

Campaign Finance System: Something’s Rotten in the Old Dominion

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by Bert Berlin

My member of the House of Delegates enjoys being in a gerrymandered Republican district. In 2011, 2013 and 2015 my delegate ran unopposed. No Democrat was willing to face him. Yet, my delegate continued to raise extremely large amounts of campaign funds and used those funds to “win friends and influence” people in the GOP.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project [VPAP], in the 2014-2015 campaign cycle (the most recent full cycle) my delegate raised $337,887 and spent $303,090–all when he faced no opposition for reelection. Again according to VPAP, my delegate spent over $50,000 during those two years just to raise more funds. That’s 1/6 of his campaign money spent for the purpose of getting more money to reelect an incumbent who faces no opposition.

My delegate is only one of many incumbents of both parties in both the Senate and House of Delegates for whom major fund-raising has become a full-time activity, even though they rarely face opposition for reelection. It seems that the only time they are not engaged in raising funds is when the General Assembly is in session, and that is only because fund-raising at that time is illegal.

So, you may ask, what do these unopposed incumbents do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars they raise every year? Before answering that question, we need to know what the law permits them to use those funds for. Although there is no provision in the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act of 2006 that is entitled “permitted uses of campaign funds”, the Attorney General has determined that–

“The permitted uses of campaign funds are found in § 24.2-945.1(A) [of the Virginia Code], where the General Assembly defines the term “expenditure” to mean money and services of any amount, and any other thing of value, paid, loaned, provided, or in any other way disbursed by any candidate, campaign committee, political committee, or person for the purpose of expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate. . .”

In short, a candidate’s committee can use funds only “for the purpose of expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate”. In light of this restriction, let me rephrase the question. Do candidates who face no electoral opposition actually spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to advocate their reelection?

For example, what did my delegate spend campaign funds for in 2014-2015 (besides the $50,000 for raising additional funds)?

  1. The largest category on his VPAP page is $86,000 for “Donations to Leadership Committees”. The two “committees” were the Dominion Leadership Trust and the Dominion Leadership PAC. He also donated $15,000 to various Republican “Party Committees”. All of these are questionable payments under the campaign finance act because they do not advocate the election of a “clearly identified candidate.”
  2. He spent $28,000 for “Donations to Legislative Candidates”. Whether campaign funds raised by one candidate can be donated to another candidate is problematic under the campaign finance act.
  3. He spent $24,047 for “Staff/Consultants”, although why he would need campaign staff and consultants when he was running unopposed is hard to understand.
  4. He spent $2,719 for expenses during the “Legislative Session”, including money for food, gifts, parking and a stipend for a “session intern”.
  5. Other categories that he spent money on, according to VPAP, were $3,512 for “Events/Catering” (including $536 to the Omni Homestead Resort), $2,409 for “Community Goodwill” (including donations to Bluefield College, the MCV Foundation, dues for the VA Coalition for Open Government and tickets for the Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast and the Raritan Club) , $1,669 for “Travel/Meal Expenses” (including reimbursement to himself of $502 for “travel-lodging”, $244 to the Omni Homestead Resort, and amounts for gasoline and parking), and $100 for “Legislative Conferences”.

(To be fair, my delegate did spend some funds for activities that seem campaign related:  $2,033 for “Web/Online Ads/Email”; $275 for “TV/Radio” and $114 for “Signs/Bumper Stickers”.)

Based on my examination of the VPAP reports on my delegate and many other delegates and senators, I conclude that most of campaign funds raised by many incumbents are not spent to get them reelected, but rather are used to win them influence and stature within their political party and to pay for items that should be paid for from their personal funds or other sources. In short the campaign finance system has become corrupted.

One of the main reasons that the system has become corrupted is that the campaign finance act provides no mechanism for enforcement. The act specifies civil penalties for failure to file campaign finance reports, filing reports late or for other filing violations, but specifies no penalty for misspending campaign funds. Further, it is not exactly clear who is responsible for enforcement. The act requires candidates to file reports but doesn’t assign to any agency or officer the responsibility to read the reports and check that the law is being followed. In passing the act, the General Assembly assumed that the act would be enforced by citizens at the polls.

If you think that money has become too powerful in controlling Virginia politics; if you would like to keep our elected officials honest; then log on vpap.org. Then click on “elections” and then either House or Senate, and finally, General Elections. Scroll down to and click on your district. Now you can see who has contributed to your delegate or senator and how they have spent that money. If your delegate or senator is abusing the campaign finance system, write to them and complain. And, of course, you can always punish them at the ballot box this fall.