Sen. Hartsell’s campaign paid off personal credit cards

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, Jr.
Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, Jr.

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.