Sen. Hartsell’s campaign paid off personal credit cards

10 personal cards got election funds

acurliss@newsobserver.comJanuary 11, 2013 

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, Jr.

MLEWIS

  • Who funds the scholarship? The school system in Cabarrus County offers a scholarship each year for $750 to the highest-ranked student at Concord High School who would be a first-generation college student. The scholarship is listed in honor of Fletcher and Doris Hartsell and is “presented” by their children, who include state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell Jr. Records show Hartsell’s campaign committee has picked up the bill recently. On Dec. 28, 2011, the Hartsell campaign wrote a check to his law firm for $1,500 with a listed purpose of “Charitable contributions – Scholarships – Concord High School.” Hartsell said the money was for the high school scholarship. He said the campaign payment was a reimbursement to his law firm because the firm paid the scholarship. He said his siblings have pooled money at the firm. “Funding for the scholarship is in a trust account at the law firm,” he said. Why did the money come from his campaign? Hartsell said that it was the end of the year and “I wanted to get it in.” “I probably had a campaign checkbook and not my own,” he said. Hartsell said his family has paid for the scholarship for about 15 years, starting at $500 a year and rising to $750 now, and that he has put in “substantially” more of his own money than from campaign funds. Elections deputy director Kim Strach said that charitable contributions from a candidate’s campaigns are supposed to be in the name of the campaign committee, and that her office would review the transactions.
  • More information Who is Fletcher Hartsell Jr.? Fletcher Hartsell, 65, is a Concord Republican who is starting his 12th term in the state Senate. Until recently, he was chairman of the powerful Finance Committee. His term on the Legislative Ethics Committee expires this month.

State Sen. Fletcher Hartsell Jr. spent nearly $100,000 of his campaign’s money in 2011 and 2012 paying off debts on at least 10 personal credit cards, according to new campaign finance reports.

Hartsell, a lawyer and influential Republican from Concord, was unopposed in both the primary and general election campaigns.

Hartsell said in an interview that he could not promise that some of the spending from his campaign, which is financed by donors, did not cover some personal expenses, which would be prohibited under state law. He could not provide detailed documents about the expenses, but said he would gather as many as he could.

“I am not going to say there is not some instance that could be characterized one way or the other,” said Hartsell, whose law practice includes a focus on governmental law. “Most of these things that I do are sort of a blended issue. I do the best job I can to keep up with it.”

Several entries on his campaign reports appear to be unrelated to his campaign, such as payments for $2,244 for listings in a directory of lawyers and $1,500 for a scholarship at Concord High School that is publicly listed as being provided by Hartsell and his siblings in honor of their parents. His campaign also wrote his law firm a $3,000 check with a listed purpose, in part, of “charity contribution reimbursement.”

For much of the campaign’s spending, it is unclear how the money was spent because it was on credit cards and Hartsell has given no listing of individual charges.

Kim Strach, deputy director for campaign finance at the state Board of Elections, said Thursday the disclosure reports raise enough questions that her office has opened an immediate inquiry. She said Friday that an auditor was gathering documentation.

“At a minimum, the information that has been provided is not the information that is needed,” she said. “It is not complete.”

Hartsell said if any spending is found to be invalid, “I will pay it back.” He said a thorough review might even show that his campaign owes him money for mileage and expenses he incurred.

Undocumented expenses

Hartsell said he thinks the credit-card spending was “primarily” associated with his public office, mostly for travel, gas and meals related to being a state senator, expenses that are allowed under campaign laws.

“Just because you don’t have any opponent, doesn’t mean you don’t have to go places,” he said. “I will concede that it sounds like a lot of money. It is a lot of money. That’s the nature of the beast sometimes.”

Campaign laws are written to foster transparency. If a campaign uses a credit card, according to Strach, it is required to disclose an itemized listing of those transactions, essentially showing what would be on the credit card statement itself.

Hartsell’s reports show only that thousands of dollars in checks were sent to pay balances on credit cards, including American Express, Bank of America, Citibank and Discover.

Hartsell listed broad explanations for the spending. An example is a check he wrote to Discover on Nov. 3 last year for $795.32 – an amount slightly below the average amount paid by 92 checks the campaign wrote to credit card companies and banks in 2012. The listed purpose of the payment was: “Materials, office expense, unreimbursed meals, fuel, travel, books.”

The campaign wrote checks to seven other credit cards that month for the same purposes.

The disclosure forms also show the campaign writing checks to two banks and a credit union in relatively large amounts. Last month, for example, the Hartsell campaign paid the State Employees’ Credit Union $750. The listed purpose of the spending is “bank transfer.” Hartsell said he could not immediately explain the bank spending and would not rule out cash withdrawals.

‘A bunch of credit cards’

Hartsell has listed some payments for “cumulative” expenses over long periods of time but did not specify dates or other details. At the beginning of 2010, for example, the campaign made a $6,017 payment to American Express that it reported as covering “accumulated net expenses” for all of 2008.

“Quite honestly, this is something that had built up over time,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of credit cards... I wish I didn’t.”

The reports show $23,541 spent on credit cards in 2011 and another $75,254 in 2012. Hartsell’s campaign also paid another $14,500 directly to him or his law firm, Hartsell & Williams of Concord, in 2011 and 2012 as reimbursements for expenses.

In the past two years, taxpayers paid Hartsell $43,486 for his travel, meals and subsistence as a senator. Generally known as “per diems,” the payments are meant for lawmakers’ travel, meals and housing while on official business.

Other candidates who did not face opponents for the most recent primary and general elections have reported far less than Hartsell in operating expenses. Hartsell’s Senate colleagues who were unopposed reported spending about half as much as Hartsell, records show.

Hartsell’s campaign reports include something else unusual: his own signature on the required certification that the form is true, correct and complete and that he has been trained in reporting requirements. Typically, campaign treasurers complete that section.

“A long time ago, I decided, well, if something’s wrong, I’m going to get blamed for it anyway,” he said.

Curliss: 919-829-4840

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service