The year before an election, campaign committees across Alabama spent more than $4.5 million from their respective accounts in 2013, according to a review of recent reports. The expenses were ledgered against more than $15.4 million in itemized statewide cash contributions.
Besides Gov. Robert Bentley, who was the leading fundraiser in the cash category with $3.1 million last year, other leaders included Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey with $466,840.59, Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard with $444,697.44, Sen. Roger Bedford with $396,615.73, Sen. Slade Blackwell with $379,550 and Sen. Arthur Orr with $343,010.00.
Local legislators weren’t quite so enterprising, with State Sen. Vivian Figures raising a high of $95,000 to State Rep. John McMillan of Baldwin County raising just $4,000. And more than two years after new restrictions were put on how campaign funds can be spent, expenditures appeared to slow as well. Approximately 95 percent of itemized expenditures statewide in 2013 were for less than $2,500, so a report last month documenting Hubbard’s $71,610 legal expense from his campaign finance account was an anomaly.
Combined, Hubbard’s legal expenses were the second-largest single expense from all campaign accounts last year behind Gov. Bentley, who paid RCM Communications in Tuscaloosa $112,000 for advertising. Other standout expenses include $59,292 District 8 State Senate hopeful John Blackwell, who paid an Atlanta firm for consulting before ultimately suspending his campaign. Attorney General Luther Strange expended $37,350, the fourth largest in the state, for consulting and polling on Dec. 16 of last year.
Locally, House District 104 candidate Margie Wilcox made the 11th highest expenditure in the state, a $24,216 payment to Strategy, Inc. for consulting work. Also in the top 10 was unofficial Senate District 31 candidate William Moore, who itemized $24,795.00 for a “campaign car” at a Ford dealership in Enterprise on Dec. 9. In the same month, Moore also paid a Birmingham firm $25,000 for a “campaign management fee.”
Alabama’s Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA) dictates how and when campaign contributions can be solicited and spent. For expenditures over $100, candidates must report who received the payment along with the amount and purpose of the expense. The law says candidates may spend money from the accounts for purposes “reasonably related to performing the duties of the office held,” while excluding personal and legislative living expenses. Alabama legislators currently earn more than $50,000 annually and also receive some transportation costs.
The FCPA more specifically prohibits expenses on household supplies, personal clothing, tuition payments, mortgage or rent, utility payments for a personal residence, admission or event fees for a country club or a social club, or any other expense, excluding food and beverages, which “would exist irrespective of the candidate’s campaign or duties as a legislator.” The state’s Ethics Act defines the law further, adding that contributions to an officeholder or candidate shall not be converted for personal use.
Last year, former Democratic State Sen. Lowell Barron was indicted by Strange for violations of the FCPA and Ethics Act, apparently for paying a longtime campaign staffer more than $50,000 from campaign funds, as well as giving the former employee the title to a used campaign car. Meanwhile, Hubbard’s payment of legal fees appears protected by a 2000 attorney general opinion allowing legislators to use campaign funds to defend themselves from accusations incurred while in office. Still, the state’s largest expenses in 2013 go against the grain for typical spending from campaign accounts.
Statewide last year, 29 percent of campaign expenditures went for advertising, 20 percent were spent on administrative expenses, 20 percent were spent on polling and consulting, 8 percent were spent on a category marked “other expenses,” while the remainder was allocated toward fundraising, transportation, charitable contributions, loan repayments, or food and lodging.
Hubbard’s legal expenses were listed in the “other” category while Moore’s vehicle purchase was listed as a “transportation” expense.
Closer to home, State Rep. Jamie Ison said she repaid her campaign account after questions arose about how she used contributions toward a vehicle purchase and transportation expenses in 2011. Until this year, Ison had used her campaign funds liberally, itemizing $15,438 in transportation reimbursements in 2012.
The year before, Ison spent $4,092.52 on transportation reimbursements, not including a payment of $16,203 to Lexus of Mobile, which she said was one-third the cost of a new car. In 2010, an election year, Ison reimbursed herself for $4,561.83 in transportation costs, or nearly 19 percent of her total expenditures of $24,222.25 that year.
“I’ve driven my car for 11 years and spend much more than a third of my vehicle time performing legislative duties,” Ison said. “I paid that back to my account because I didn’t want any questions at all as to whether or not it was appropriate. My understanding is there is a number of folks that have [purchased vehicles] and when I made the decision, I did so in lieu of leasing, which in the long run was going to be more expensive for me. But as for reimbursing the campaign account, I just made the decision I didn’t want any questions and would rather use that money in the future for contributions to my district.”
Campaign finance records currently on file with the Secretary of State’s Office do not shown Ison’s reimbursement for the Lexus, but her 2013 reports were not on file. Her last filing was at the end of 2013 for 2012’s reports, according to the Secretary of State’s website.
Similarly, William Moore said it was his understanding that a vehicle purchase is a legitimate campaign expense as long as the proceeds from its eventual sale is returned to the campaign account, the state or a tax deductible charity.
“This district covers four counties and my personal vehicle is an old ford pickup with 192,000 miles on it that I didn’t think would stand up to rigors of a campaign,” Moore said. “There are rules for disposing of a vehicle where you can donate the proceeds to the general fund, a tax exempt charity or liquidate and donate the vehicle.”
Moore intends to formally announce his candidacy Feb. 7 and is running against Jimmy Holley, an incumbent with more than 40 years experience in the legislature. Ison is not running for re-election this year, but State Sen. Trip Pittman of Baldwin County is and he believes the state’s campaign finance laws are clear.
Since 2010, Pittman has reported $140,550 in contributions and $140,704 in expenditures, itemizing 100 percent. In the past three years, he has repaid himself for $57,500 in loans from his campaign funds.
Before the practice was banned in 2010, Pittman also shifted $45,250 to other candidates statewide and in 2011, paid for $7,124.60 in legal fees from his campaign account. Pittman is currently carrying a balance of $50,216 into a re-election campaign.
“The congressional race has sucked a lot of contributions out this year and fundraising has been a little challenging,” he said. “So you have to be a little more careful about how you spend that money but generally, my expenses are administrative in nature. The legislature has actually done a lot to strengthen campaign finance law in the past several years and I think it’s pretty solid, you just have to think twice about what can be construed as a personal use and what it means to be ‘reasonably related’ to a campaign.”
Meanwhile, Barron faces a Class B felony punishable by fines of up to $10,000 and as much as 20 years in prison. Ison is the only legislator from the Gulf Coast reportedly not running for re-election this year, but the qualifying deadline for major party candidates is Feb. 7.