RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The businesses that lobby Virginia politicians are also subsidizing meals at fancy restaurants, stays in the finest hotels, and personal expenses like gas and cellphone bills through campaign donations, records show.
Compounding the issue? Lawmakers in Virginia seldom face serious challenges; only a handful of races were seriously contested in 2015, and not a single incumbent lost in the general election. That means politicians who run up huge fundraising accounts to scare off challengers don't have to spend the money on campaigning.
An Associated Press review of the state's finance system turned up examples like Chesapeake Democrat Del. Lionell Spruill, who hasn't faced an opponent in two decades.
Since 2011, Spruill has spent $300,000 from his campaign account on numerous luxuries: a membership in a private business club, meals at Ruth's Chris steakhouses around the country, and more than $2,000 at high-end Richmond restaurants during legislative sessions. More than 90 percent of the money Spruill raised came from corporations, trade organizations or special interest groups.
Spruill, who has not listed an outside income in years, declined to comment.
The AP examined tens of thousands of campaign donations and expenditures collected by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan money-in-politics tracker; interviewed several current and past lawmakers; and compared Virginia's laws and habits to other states and the federal system. Among the findings:
—Behavior that would get lawmakers locked up in other states or at the federal level is perfectly fine in the Old Dominion. Virginia is the only state where lawmakers can raise unlimited campaign donations from anyone, including corporations and unions, and spend the money on themselves.
— A handful of lawmakers, including senior members in both parties, rely almost entirely on business interests and their representatives for campaign contributions. For instance, GOP Senate President Pro Tem Steve Newman has raised more than $360,000 since 2012; 99 percent of that money came from corporations, trade groups, lobbying firms or special interest groups. Newman said he didn't have to do any serious fundraising because he ran unopposed and said his haul from corporate interests hasn't unduly influenced his votes.
— The current system has little accountability. Lawmakers must disclose their spending but are free to do so in the vaguest details. Some lawmakers reimburse themselves thousands of dollars from their campaigns with only scant explanation, like "travel reimbursement." Further, Virginia's State Board of Elections does not audit or investigate campaign finance reports. Elected prosecutors can investigate campaign finance violations, but longtime political watchers could not recall a case ever being brought.
Advocates say regulated businesses subsidizing a largely unregulated campaign finance system risks both sides getting too cozy.
"There's nothing wrong with being business-friendly, but the question is whether they're too friendly," said Dale Eisman, a spokesman for Common Cause.
For more than two years, Virginia lawmakers have been trying to reform the state's image in the wake of former Gov. Bob McDonnell's corruption scandal. Those efforts have mostly focused on limiting gifts from lobbyists and corporate interests, and lawmakers have so far rejected calls from Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and others to tighten the state's campaign finance system.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax County, is carrying a bill to prohibit using campaign money for personal expenditures — something already illegal for federal politicians and in most states. Currently, Virginia officials are only prohibited from spending campaign money for personal use when they close out their campaign accounts.
A Republican-controlled panel punted on the bill earlier this year, saying it should be reconsidered next year. Simon said he fears the bill will die quietly and said his colleagues have told him they aren't eager to take up the issue.
"If we allow the industries we regulate to fund our campaign system, at the very least, you ought to have some limit on how you spend that money and not make it a personal slush fund," Simon said.
But other Virginia lawmakers are skeptical that new regulations are needed. When McAuliffe addressed the General Assembly last month and said he wanted to ban the personal use of campaign funds, virtually no one clapped.
"These are not government funds, these are private funds," said GOP Del. Mark Cole, who leads the House committee overseeing election law. "Why should the government step into basically what is a private transaction?"
Many legislators say the unfettered use of campaign funds is necessary. A lawmaker is on duty 24 hours, seven-day-a-week, they said, and the line between what's a personal expense and what's a campaign or official expense is often blurry.
Lawmakers like former Sen. Steve Martin, who lost a GOP primary for his Richmond-area seat last year, say their official salaries of about $18,000 a year plus a $1,250-a-month office stipend don't begin to cover all their costs.
Martin's campaign reported spending more than $7,000 on tire and auto repair shops and several thousand at area gas stations in recent years. Martin, who had his Senate wages garnished and has been sued for alleged unpaid debts, said the campaign paid for those expenses because he usually traveled for official reasons.
"Other than going to church and grocery shopping and going to pick up my grandchildren and keeping them on Mondays and stuff like that, I wasn't doing a lot of personal stuff with my car," Martin said.
Lawmakers also get $185 a day to cover hotels and meals during sessions, which are either 45 or 60 days long. But records show they frequently spend upwards of $200 for meals labeled on reports only as "constituent meal," ''working dinner" — or simply "dinner" because they aren't required to report their spending in any level of detail. A favorite is Bookbinder's Seafood and Steakhouse, where a surf and turf sells for as much as $96. Lawmakers have spent more than $5,000 there during the past two legislative sessions.
Others pay for expensive hotel stays, like GOP Del. Chris Peace, who stayed at Richmond's storied Jefferson Hotel during the 2014 inaugural celebrations. He also paid for an out-of-town photographer hired to take pictures for his re-election campaign to stay at the hotel.
Peace said he chose the Jefferson, where his campaign has reported spending more than $1,000, in part to help promote tourism.
"The Jefferson is an icon of the city, and I encourage everyone to stay there," he said in an email.