Las Vegas Sun

December 12, 2017

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Assembly Democrats show donations increasingly a secondary income for politicians

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The exchange of money between lobbyist and lawmaker can be a particularly loathsome chore.

Many politicians balk at the constant need to raise funds.

And although some lobbyists might revel in grandiose displays of political patronage, others grimace at what can seem like never-ending demands for campaign funds.

Those grimaces tightened even further last week, when a cadre of Assembly Democrats filed amended campaign finance disclosures detailing how they had spent thousands of dollars in campaign funds.

The seven lawmakers originally sought to keep those expenditures secret, following the advice of their lawyer, who said they didn’t have to report expenses that were not directly related to campaign efforts.

Secretary of State Ross Miller disagreed, saying a failure to disclose any expenditure from a campaign fund is likely a violation of the state’s campaign finance laws.

After the Sun reported the secret expenses, the Democrats then reversed course and filed new expense reports, detailing nearly $45,000 in campaign fund spending on a slew of living expenses during the legislative session in Carson City. These included rent, electronics, house cleaning and supplies, groceries, lunches and dinners at Carson City restaurants and even bottled water.

The lawmakers also paid for airfare and hotels to professional conferences in Hawaii, Texas and Florida.

The legislators tapped their campaign funds for these expenses despite the fact the state pays them a per diem for each day of the legislative session — whether they are physically in Carson City or not — to cover many of the same expenses.

Those who tried to keep their expenses hidden were: Assembly Democrats David Bobzien, of Reno; Debbie Smith and Skip Daly, both of Sparks; and Lucy Flores, Marcus Conklin, Peggy Pierce and Marilyn Dondero-Loop, all of Las Vegas.

The reports offer a window on how lawmakers’ campaign funds are increasingly used for far more than just getting elected. Indeed, fundraising seems to no longer be simply a means to mount a credible campaign but a secondary income stream to support the politician while in office.

Miller has held that campaign funds can legally be spent on any expenses such as rent in Carson City and other costs associated with being a lawmaker. But those expenses must be reported, he said.

While legal, the newly reported expenses exacted some bitterness from donors who contribute to help lawmakers get elected.

“I don’t know how anyone could read her (campaign contribution and expense) report and feel comfortable contributing to her,” one lobbyist said after reviewing one lawmaker’s new reports. “They just always squeeze for money and this is what they spend it on? Groceries in Carson City?”

The Assembly Democrats’ lack of disclosure is the latest in a string of questionable campaign fund uses.

In 2010, former Assemblywoman Kathy McClain, D-Las Vegas, was sanctioned for using her campaign funds to contribute to her personal retirement account. And last year, former Assemblyman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, was fined for depositing $120,000 in campaign contributions into his personal bank account.

As for the Democrats’ failure to disclose, Miller said he is still reviewing the case to determine if they violated any campaign laws.

The lawmakers filed the amended reports before he could take action.

Smith and Bobzien characterized it as an honest disagreement over interpretation of an ambiguously worded law and said they would work with the secretary of state to resolve it.

Flores complained the disclosure requirements had grown too onerous and said they would be easier to comply with if she had “a staffer that the state paid for to record every single one of my receipts.”

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