NC House majority leader spent nearly $7,000 to furnish office

pgannon@ncinsider.comAugust 27, 2013 

  • Spending campaign dollars

    State campaign finance laws allow state lawmakers and candidates much latitude in spending campaign cash. In addition to campaign-related expenses, they may spend campaign dollars on “expenditures resulting from holding public office” and donations to charities.

    Many lawmakers spent campaign money in the first half of 2013 for gas, food and drink.

    Here are some of the more interesting purchases state House members made, according to campaign spending reports filed with the State Board of Elections:

    • Rep. Susi Hamilton, Democrat from Wilmington: $424 for storage unit rental at Monkey Junction Mini Storage in Wilmington.

    • Rep. Linda Johnson, Republican from Kannapolis: $1,638 for car repairs.

    • Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, Republican from Apex: $1,500 for a $300-a-month salary supplement during session to Anne Murtha, his legislative assistant.

    • Rep. John Szoka, Republican from Fayetteville: $1,774 for gold and silver coins for raffle, raffle tickets and coin holders.

    • Rep. Joe Tolson, Democrat from Pinetops: $100 to a woman in Pinetops to “assist with electric bill.”

In the first four months of 2013, the campaign of Rep. Edgar Starnes, the House majority leader, spent nearly $7,000 on furniture and decorations for his office on the third floor of the Legislative Office Building, according to campaign finance reports filed with the State Board of Elections.

Among the purchases was an office fireplace bought from Mantels Direct in Alabama for $999. An additional $3,900 was spent on tables and furniture, $520 on lamps and shades, and nearly $650 on picture frames and other accessories, including a $44.95 bronze bust of the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms bought from the Jesse Helms Center in Union County.

“I just think he’s a conservative icon, and I admired him for his courage and his willingness to take a stand for the things that he believed,” said Starnes, a Republican from Hickory.

Starnes said his office – which is much larger than most lawmakers’ work spaces and includes several rooms – was rather bare when he moved in and he had to fill it up.

“I wanted it to be more like a home atmosphere than just a sterile, office atmosphere,” he said. “I just wanted to make it look pretty. ... I get a lot of compliments on the way the office looks.”

Starnes said he thought his purchases were appropriate and made the office inviting to fellow legislators and constituents. “I think the leader has a certain status,” he said. “You want to look good, and you want people to feel good when they come see you.”

The purchases, which totaled $6,679.32, are allowed under state campaign finance laws, which give candidates broad discretion on spending campaign funds as long as they don’t go toward personal expenses.

Ethics laws approved by legislators in 2006 banned the use of campaign donations for personal use, but carved out allowances for “expenditures resulting from holding public office.” A legal opinion from state elections officials directs candidates that any spending is OK as long as they can say that they would not have otherwise incurred the expense if not for holding public office.

Watchdog is OK with it

Bob Hall of the watchdog group Democracy North Carolina said Starnes’ spending on office amenities wasn’t “chump-change,” but added that he didn’t see it as inappropriate under state law, especially considering Starnes’ rise to majority leader for this legislative session. He added that it is good that Starnes disclosed the purchases, which then could be considered by donors and constituents when deciding whether to contribute to or vote for him in the future.

Other legislators also used campaign cash for office furniture, computers, refrigerators, picture frames and other office decor, although not to Starnes’ level. Freshman Rep. Debra Conrad, a Republican from Winston-Salem, for example, spent $709 for an iPad, keyboard and charger, plus $630 for office chairs, $360 for a refrigerator and microwave and $160 for lamps and a mirror. And Rep. Mike Hager, a Rutherfordton Republican, spent $1,765 for furniture.

Legislative Services officer George Hall said the state provides legislators with basic office furniture, including desks and chairs, file cabinets and trash cans. Anything more is the lawmakers’ responsibility, Hall said.

Starnes’ campaign raised about $22,000 in the first six months of the year, with nearly all of the donations coming from political action committees. He received $4,000 each from PACs for the N.C. Farm Bureau, Duke Energy and the Eastern Bank of Cherokee Indians, his campaign finance report shows. His campaign spent about $12,300 from January to June, leaving his balance at about $48,000. He started the year with about $38,000 in the bank.

Patrick Gannon writes for the NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer. For more information, visit www.ncinsider.com.

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