By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
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By Mike Baker
The Associated Press
OLYMPIA — Two former members of the state Legislature have said it is time for lawmakers to eliminate campaign surplus accounts, which some politicians have tapped for iPads, clothing, car repairs, tuition and alcohol.
Former state Rep. Toby Nixon and former state Sen. Bill Finkbeiner said they have started working with lawmakers to close the accounts after an Associated Press story identified a variety of questionable expenditures.
Finkbeiner said legislators appear to be using the surplus funds as an extra checking account.
“I just feel like they're being abused,” Finkbeiner said.
“There's not enough oversight.”
Nixon, a Republican, is currently president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which bills itself as a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization advocating for transparency.
Finkbeiner is a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.
State law allows politicians to use their surplus accounts for a variety of things, including an umbrella option for “office-related expenses.”
Nixon and Finkbeiner say that is too broad. They propose the elimination of the accounts and would allow politicians to either return excess money to contributors or save it for future elections.
Finkbeiner had a surplus account when he was in the Legislature and reported spending the money on meals, printing expenses and travel.
Much of it was forwarded to the Senate Republicans campaign committee, which is how many lawmakers shed their excess cash.
Nixon also sent some of his money to political groups, and some of it was donated in 2009 and 2007 to the Washington Coalition for Open Government, where he serves as a volunteer leader.
Nixon said the accounts serve as a temptation for politicians to misuse the money.
He said no lawmakers have agreed to introduce the legislation, but he suspects there are some who will be on board.
“I do think there are quite a few legislators — on both sides of the aisle — who are very committed to ethics and would be willing to sponsor this kind of bill,” Nixon said.
State Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said it's something he is going to explore in the coming days.
He didn't create a surplus account after winning his Senate seat but said he sees opportunity to provide additional transparency and clarification for lawmakers who do use them.
“There's a lot of gray area in there,” Hill said.
“In the end, voters want transparency, and they don't like the gray areas.”
Nixon and Finkbeiner also said they want to see the Legislature increase funding for the state's Public Disclosure Commission, the agency that oversees campaign finance matters.
The 24th District, which covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and the northern half of Grays Harbor County, is represented by three Democrats: state Reps. Kevin Van De Wege and Steve Tharinger, both of Sequim, and state Sen. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam.
Spending from the accounts — made up of surplus campaign contributions — came under recent fire by former Republican lawmakers Toby Nixon and Bill Finkbeiner, who said the option to deposit excess campaign donations into surplus-fund accounts should be eliminated.
(See related story, below)
While a major portion of surplus donations fund party causes, their call to action came following an Aug. 27 Associated Press article that documented expenditures including auto repairs, iPads and alcohol that were made by statewide and legislative elected officials with surplus campaign donations.
“I do not think that contributor funds should be redirected to personal use, or to political uses other than intended by the contributor, without the permission of the contributor,” Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said in an email to Peninsula Daily News.
“Bill Finkbeiner and I are continuing to refine ideas for the legislation based on discussions with possible sponsors and other activists.
“No draft bill yet exists, but we are having conversations with possible sponsors.”
He said Wednesday that he is in the process of planning meetings with legislators.
According to the state Public Disclosure Commission, Van De Wege spent $2,913 in surplus campaign donations on three pieces of new furniture, including three new lamps that cost a combined $650, for his Olympia office in 2009.
Van De Wege said he checked to see what was available from the House stockpile of furniture, then bought new pieces.
“I did not use taxpayer money in any way, shape or form,” he said.
Van De Wege, the House majority whip and the chamber's fourth-ranking Democrat, also spent $1,800 for a 2009 party for about 100 people at Anthony's restaurant in Seattle restaurant.
The purpose: to celebrate the passage of legislation that shifts responsibility for funding Neah Bay's emergency response tug from the state to the maritime industry.
“I chose to use my campaign surplus account exactly as it was designed to do,” Van De Wege said, adding that the “landmark” legislation saves the state of Washington more than $3 million a year.
Donations by state Sen. Jim Hargrove included $5,000 each in campaign donations in 2008 to Christian Cable Ministries, the Union Gospel Mission of Gig Harbor and Haiti Arise Ministries; and $3,000 to the 7th Street Theater Association in Hoquiam.
“It seems to me that's a good way to spend campaign funds,” Hargrove said.
“It should not be spent on furniture; it should be very tightly controlled. I would prefer to still give it to charities.”
Said Van De Wege: “We should never stop the ability of people to donate to charity.”
Hargrove and Van De Wege also gave substantial amounts to Democratic Party organizations — Hargrove $10,000 in 2008, Van De Wege $69,000 between August 2010 and August 2012.
The PDC showed transfers of $17,007 to Tharinger's surplus account and expenditures of $15,255. He donated $15,000 of that to the House Democratic Central Committee.
“There are a lot of expenses that I am not convinced the regular expense account would cover,” Tharinger said.
“Some are legislative expenses that can be covered by a surplus account.”
Surplus campaign donations can be spent on “office-related” expenses, state Public Disclosure Commission spokeswoman Lorie Anderson said.
“When it comes to office-related expenses, there really isn't any clear definition of what that means,” she added.
“We tie that in with another provision that says there will be no personal use of campaign money. That's the kind of angle we come at it from.”
The only recent inquiries on surplus campaign donations have come from the media, she said.
And no one has filed surplus-fund-related complaints against Van De Wege, Hargrove or Tharinger — or, for that matter, any other legislative or statewide elected official, Anderson said.
Van De Wege condemned the spending of campaign funds on Seattle Mariners tickets, as outlined in the Associated Press article.
The party at Anthony's, which included members of the Neah Bay-based Makah tribe and other 24th District residents, celebrated “by far the biggest piece of legislation I've ever passed,” Van De Wege said.
“I could have gotten lobbyists to pay for that, but then you are somewhat beholden to them,” he added.
The party at Anthony's “doesn't sound like something that is appropriate either as a campaign expense or an office expense,” Nixon responded.
“In my experience, such celebrations are not usually paid for by legislators, but by the citizens or lobbyists who had advocated for legislation.”
Responded Van De Wege: “I would say if Toby Nixon has a problem with it, that is Toby Nixon's opinion, and that celebration of legislation was obviously upheld by the [Public Disclosure Commission] because they never inquired about it.”
Anderson said no one from the PDC lately has examined Van De Wege's spending reports — or any other legislator's.
“I can guarantee you no one has looked at those surplus reports that he has filed,” she said.
It's unusual for the PDC to even look at surplus-fund reports, Anderson said.
“There are some reports we do look at regularly, and surplus [reports] are not on the list.”
Her only question of Van De Wege, she said, is this: What becomes of the furniture when he leaves office?
Van De Wege said he won't take it with him.
The party at Anthony's appears to fall under office-related expenditures, Anderson said.
“The question they have to ask themselves is, 'Is this truly something that's going to benefit the office, and I'm only spending this money because I'm holding this office and otherwise would not make this expense?'”
Anderson said surplus accounts are rarely set up by city or county officials but by a majority of legislators and almost all statewide officials.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.