Originally created 03/03/03

Campaign money used for lawmakers' personal expenses



ATLANTA -- State lawmakers used campaign money to pay for food, lodging and other apparently personal expenses, campaign finance reports show.

Among the expenses incurred by some lawmakers writing checks from campaign accounts: car repairs and specialty license plates, Christmas gifts for campaign workers and membership dues in civic clubs.

Personal spending is widespread among Georgia lawmakers of both parties, according to a review of hundreds of campaign finance documents in Sunday's editions of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

State law allows campaign money to be spent only on "ordinary and necessary" expenses incurred while running for or holding office and cannot go toward personal expenses.

The law outlines five ways to spend campaign money: for charitable contributions, political donations, refunding supporters' contributions, funding a future campaign for the same office and for retiring campaign debts.

Otherwise, campaign spending is a matter of interpretation.

"You look at the particulars," said Teddy Lee, executive secretary of the Ethics Commission. "You have to take them up on an individual basis."

Ethics officials are looking into whether House Speaker Terry Coleman (D-Eastman) violated the law by paying the mortgage on his Atlanta condo with his campaign money. To help settle the case, Coleman recently paid more than $38,000 back to his campaign, his spokeswoman said.

Coleman was one of at least six lawmakers who paid for apartments or condos in Atlanta with their campaign accounts.

The state already pays for lawmakers' living expenses in Atlanta - more than $5,000 apiece each year during the 40-day session.

The Ethics Commission can levy civil penalties - including $1,000 fines - for each violation of state campaign finance laws.

Records show Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Sharpsburg) reimbursed his wife, Jean, for $600 in Christmas gifts for his employees in the Capitol.

"The people who work for me had worked hard and long hours," Westmoreland said. "It was just a Christmas present to them from me for their work on the campaign."

But in retrospect, he said last week, "It probably would have been more appropriate to pay it out of the (Republican) caucus account."

Legislators and ethics advocates said the campaign account law is vague.

"It would help us as legislators to understand what's meant by 'appropriate,' or whatever (the law) says," Westmoreland said.

Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause of Georgia, said the law should spell out "specifically what (lawmakers) are and are not supposed to do."

But "at some point, you have to rely on the integrity of the individual," Bozarth said.