HARRISBURG – Theft charges against a Philadelphia-area Democrat highlight Pennsylvania’s lax rules to reimburse lawmakers with taxpayer and donor money, two state-run systems with little transparency and yet less oversight.
Former state representative Margo Davidson was accused in July of stealing taxpayers and embezzling campaign funds, helping her fill a legislative salary that is already one of the most generous in the country. She has since accepted her responsibilities and resigned from her post.
Despite warnings from advocates of good government and even some inside Capitol Hill that the state’s reimbursement systems are ripe for abuse, Republican leaders have failed to push reforms forward.
Unlike most private and public sector employers, state lawmakers are often not required to provide proof when requesting reimbursement from taxpayer-funded accounts. On the campaign side, the public cannot see thousands of dollars in election expenses lumped into vague categories and charged to credit cards.
These spending rules, highlighted in a series of articles by The Caucus and Spotlight PA over the past two years, created “A culture of zero responsibility”, Khalif Ali, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said at a recent Spotlight PA live event.
They were written by the very lawmakers they are supposed to rule, but too often, Ali said, there is a practice of “Admitted change” where lawmakers talk about reform when faced with problems but don’t follow through.
The little documentation that the legislature requires of its members and staff does not do much good for the internal gatekeepers of the organization. The criminal complaint against Davidson indicated that staff in the House Comptroller’s Office had âNo possibility of verifying whether an expense has actually been paid by the representative or another entityâ.
State Representative Seth Grove (R., York) said he intends to take a close look at the systems.
Grove, who chairs the House State Government Committee, said in late July he would convene a series of hearings to review the rules and procedures on how lawmakers classify spending, as well as ethics laws. State and other laws that govern when elected officials must forgo their pensions.
Rep. Paul Schemel (R., Franklin), who will lead one of the subcommittees in the review, said in an interview that the charges against Davidson were “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“We have a system open to people who commit wrongdoing”, he said.
Caucus and Spotlight PA reports suggest he envisions a target-rich environment.
No receipt required
Long considered a major part of a system open to abuse, per diems allow lawmakers to collect lump sum payments for food and shelter without issuing receipts. The money is on top of their annual salary of $ 90,000 (legislative leaders earn more), one of the highest in the country.
Lawmakers can claim per diems whenever they drive 80 kilometers or more outside of their home district, including when they travel to Capitol Hill for voting sessions. While the payment is a lump sum, it’s generous: over the past two years, for example, it has hovered between $ 178 and $ 200 for overnight stays.
But without needing receipts, it’s impossible to know whether lawmakers are actually spending the full amount they are allocated – or not even spending it at all.
In Davidson’s case, law enforcement officials said she was personally reimbursed by taxpayers for expenses that had already been paid for by her campaign – and that per diems were at the heart of the alleged agenda.
Davidson and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
The complaint against her indicated that nearly a third of her per diem reimbursements for hotel stays in Harrisburg from 2017 to 2019 were fraudulent. The attorney general’s office alleged that Davidson did not spend the night in Harrisburg, as she claimed, or that she had already been reimbursed for the stay through her campaign account, effectively engaging in a double deduction .
Over the years, Democrats and Republicans have criticized the per diem system and introduced bills to eliminate lump sum payments. At least two of those invoices this session – from State Senator Jim Brewster (D., Allegheny) and Rep. Brett Miller (R., Lancaster) – would require their colleagues to provide expense vouchers when requesting reimbursement.
“Modern technology makes the requirement to submit receipts a miniscule burden – a burden worth the cost of restoring public confidence in the management of its financial affairs by the General Assembly.” Miller wrote in a note to his colleagues asking for support for the bill.
Even more advantages
Grove said his ethics investigation would also cover a system for lawmakers to lease vehicles paid for by the state, another benefit that has caught the attention of taxpayers over the years.
Davidson’s own leases, in particular, raised flags when she crashed her state-paid vehicle twice in 12 days while her license was suspended. The incidents were not part of his recent accusations and his resignation.
A group of House Republicans targeted the practice again earlier this year, pushing lawmakers to ban taxpayer-funded vehicle leases. Lawmakers have argued that it is much cheaper for their colleagues to use their own vehicles and collect gasoline reimbursements. Leases have typically ranged from $ 419 to $ 711 per month in recent years, not including state-paid vehicle maintenance, oil changes, car washes and gasoline, according to records.
In reality, mileage reimbursements can be more expensive depending on the distance between a legislator and Harrisburg, The Caucus and Spotlight PA found.
Rep. Brad Roae, the Crawford County Republican who sponsored the ban and lives 240 miles from the Capitol, raised $ 30,253 for 2017-2020 mileage – essentially the same amount of money he has cost to other lawmakers to rent vehicles during this period.
Lawmakers and their staff are also eligible for reimbursement for mileage, other types of transportation, including trains and rental vehicles, and food costs in addition to per diems. At this time, these benefits are not part of Grove’s review.
Campaign expenses, personal use
Davidson was accused of failing to report campaign expenses as required to the State Department and of not spending money through an official campaign treasurer.
It’s unclear whether the unreported campaign expenses were for her electoral efforts – like the typical costs of a fundraising event or road signs – or for her personally. The complaint, for example, mentions unreported expenses for out-of-state hotels and $ 400 on her Nordstrom credit card bill, but it does not specify what the purpose of those expenses was.
But even if they were for personal use, it wouldn’t necessarily be a crime in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania is one of a minority of states that do not explicitly prohibit candidates from spending campaign money for personal use, The Caucus and Spotlight PA found in a 2019 survey.
This allowed lawmakers to spend donor money on booze, lavish dinners, clothing, limousines, and travel across the United States and abroad, while keeping the expenses hidden by various legal methods.
Senatorial Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) has repeatedly presented a campaign finance reform plan, and he updated it in the last session to include the issues highlighted by The Caucus and Spotlight PA. The reforms, which have never been the subject of a committee hearing, include the definition and prohibition of “personal use” campaign funds and requiring candidates to submit credit card statements.
Other reforms proposed by lawmakers and advocates include the requirement to submit campaign finance reports electronically rather than by mail and real-time campaign expense reports.
More frequent and full disclosure of legislative spending and campaign records could have enabled the public to identify some – but certainly not all – of Davidson’s allegedly inappropriate spending habits.
Prominent lawmakers such as Grove have discussed making both types of spending more readily available to the public.
The tens of thousands of pages of legislative spending records used in Caucus and Spotlight PA reporting took months to acquire and required news agencies to develop a one-of-a-kind database that includes 400,000 individual expenses over four years.
A small minority of lawmakers publish their spending online for their constituents, but news outlets have found that almost all publish information that is incomplete or out of date.
Grove, for his part, did not disclose more than $ 31,300 in expenses over the four years allocated to him in the House expense records. Most of this was for bulk mail purchases. About $ 3,200 was for mileage, although he publicly insists he does not accept such refunds.
House and Senate leaders have said they will support more online disclosure. One lawmaker, Senator Lindsey Williams (D., Allegheny), has previously said she will introduce a bill that would require the chief clerk to post all spending by lawmakers.
What is less clear is whether there is the political will to make substantive changes.
The reason lawmakers make information hard to find is ” self-centered “, Tim Potts, a former senior House staff member, previously told the Caucus and Spotlight PA – of “to protect yourself.”