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Campaign Dollars for Prostitutes?

What exactly can a politician in New York do with campaign funds? Sadly, he or she can do a lot that isn’t related to campaigning for office…

The New York Times has reported that “Federal prosecutors are investigating whether Gov. Eliot Spitzer used campaign funds in connection with his meetings with prostitutes, including payments for hotels or ground transportation…”

So what exactly can a politician in New York do with campaign funds?  Sadly, he or she can do a lot that isn’t related to campaigning for office.
On its face, New York Election Law § 14–130 bans personal use of campaign funds, stating that “[c]ontributions received by a candidate or a political committee . . . shall not be converted by any person to a personal use which is unrelated to a political campaign or the holding of a public office or party position.”

While this may be clear enough, over time, the law has been given such a strained interpretation in practice that candidates can and do utilize campaign funds in many ways that would appear to the average voter to be, in fact, personal.  

For example, opinions issued by the State Board of Elections permit candidates for elected office to use campaign funds: 1) to cover travel costs between their home jurisdictions and Albany; 2) to pay for memorial services for lawmakers who have died; 3) to give money to a charity of choice; 4) to pay for child care services; 5) to pay for receptions for campaign contributors; 6) to pay for portraits of retiring public officials; and 7) to pay for the production of a public access cable television program about governmental issues.   

Beyond specific opinions from the Board of Elections sanctioning these particular uses of campaign funds, there is little further definition and, certainly, no laundry list of what is allowed or prohibited to guide the public, candidates and regulators.  This lack of legal guidance gives candidates and elected officials far too much latitude to decide the boundaries of the law for themselves.  The ambiguity about personal use has led to situations where New York lawmakers routinely use campaign funds to pay for non-campaign items.  

For example, Senator Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, who will soon assume the duties of Lt. Governor, infamously used campaign funds to pay for his pool cover and then claimed that it was a legitimate campaign expense. In another egregious case, Senator Martin Connor spent over $70,000 on his car as a “campaign expense” during a period when he faced no primary or general election opponents.  

Other Albany lawmakers have been caught using campaign funds to pay for cell phones, country clubs, sporting events tickets, legal bills, meals and pet food.  The Brennan Center has long advocated that New York revise and clarify the law so that it could actually prevent politicians from using campaign funds to attend baseball games or buy kibbles.  And, the Brennan Center has also pointed out the other many flaws in New York’s decrepit campaign finance system.

Fortunately for Spitzer’s campaign contributors, he can’t weasel through the personal use loophole because the same section of the election law also states that “[c]ontributions received by a candidate or a political committee may be expended for any lawful purpose.”  (emphasis added).  Therefore, if Spitzer did use campaign funds to break state or federal law, it would appear that he violated state campaign finance laws.