House bill would ban personal use of donations

Staff WriterJune 22, 2006 

Candidates for public office in North Carolina could no longer spend their campaign money on cars, travel or other personal uses if a bill that tentatively passed the House on Wednesday becomes law.

North Carolina would join a large majority of states that require campaign contributions to go toward the expense of running for election or for serving the public. The bill would allow candidates to pay for election law penalties with the money, or donate it to charity or to other candidates or political parties.

"We are greatly overworked and underpaid, and unfortunately that gives us a sense of entitlement," said Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican. "But nobody gave us campaign money so we could buy a yacht or take a vacation."

The issue arose after former Rep. Michael Decker reported spending campaign funds on a car and a trip to Florida to pick up the car. He pocketed a $4,000 contribution from House Speaker Jim Black, and State Board of Elections hearings found that Decker had cashed $3,400 in contributions from optometrists that he did not disclose.

A review of campaign finance reports by The News & Observer in December showed others had used campaign money for personal items. One former lawmaker used the money to help buy a car and a computer; another split $9,600 among his children.

Under current law, candidates are free to spend campaign funds however they wish as long as they disclose the spending.

House members approved the bill, 107-8. Among Triangle legislators, Democratic Reps. Bernard Allen of Raleigh and Mickey Michaux of Durham voted against the bill.

Michaux said he supports a ban on personal use of campaign funds but is troubled with starting it Oct. 1, before campaign treasurers can receive training. Stam amended the bill in committee to move up the start date so that candidates in this year's election would be affected.

The bill was held back for a second and final vote today to give House members an opportunity to amend the bill to take effect Jan. 1 as it originally did.

Other lawmakers questioned what would be an allowed expense. Rep. Cary Allred, an Alamance County Republican who voted against the bill, asked whether a candidate could pay for a suit of clothes if it were used only for political purposes. Rep. Ronnie Sutton, a Pembroke Democrat, asked if a candidate could pay for a speeding ticket received on the way to a political event.

Reform legislation

Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat and a bill sponsor, said lawmakers could try to write off the expenses, but they ought to think about how the public would interpret them. The bill was later amended to specify that the only fines that could be paid from campaign funds had to relate to election law.

The bill is among several reforms House members have introduced to address concerns about government ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws after controversies stemming from Black's legislative and campaign activities. Black, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, has supported every reform bill that has come to the House floor.

Some of those bills are now before the Senate, which has yet to take action.

Staff writer Dan Kane can be reached at 829-4861 or dkane@newsobserver.com.

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