What Counts As A Campaign Expense? For Some Lawmakers, It Includes Flowers and Dry Cleaning
Candidates running for office in New Hampshire can run up a tab on all kinds of expenses: lawn signs, postage, snacks for fundraisers, radio ads, print ads, digital ads and more.
But some lawmakers lean on campaign donations to cover other, less obvious expenses that pile up on the campaign trail, or even while they’re in office: things like car repairs, dry cleaning bills and floral arrangements.
New Hampshire’s campaign finance laws provide little guidance on what counts as a legal campaign expense, but an effort under way at the State House would take a step toward more explicitly acknowledging the personal costs that can come with public service. And it’s prompted a larger debate over where candidates should draw the line between personal and political expenses on the campaign trail.
A proposal working its way through the Legislature, House Bill 651, would allow candidates to spend campaign money on childcare expenses. Supporters say this would go a long way toward making legislative service more accessible to young parents, and they point to a recent move by the Federal Election Commission to allow this kind of campaign spending in national races. But the proposal has drawn pushback from the state’s top election official.
At a recent hearing, Secretary of State Bill Gardner said he’s concerned that carving out child care costs would fundamentally alter the relationship between campaign donors and their candidates.
People who give money to campaigns could no longer safely assume that money would be used only “for the purpose of influencing the nomination or election, the success or defeat of a candidate,” Gardner said, citing the language in the state’s existing campaign finance law.
“It would be unfair for the people of this state, those who actually take the time to look at the law and look at what the definition of contribution is, and then find out after the fact that the money was used for some other purpose than what the law defines some other contribution as,” Gardner told the Senate Election Law committee.
Right now, New Hampshire’s campaign finance law defines an expenditure as a “disbursement of money or thing of value… for the purpose of promoting the success or defeat of a candidate or candidates or measure or measures.”
The law also allows campaign money leftover after Election Day to be used on other political and fundraising activities or charitable donations. That money, the law says, “shall not be used for personal purposes.” But the law doesn’t define what constitutes a “personal purpose” — or, for that matter, how long “after” an election a candidate can make use of those leftover contributions.
And in the absence of clearer guidelines, some lawmakers tap into their campaign funds year-round to pay for all kinds of tabs they incur, not just while campaigning but also serving in the State House. Those who take this route say their legislative salary isn’t nearly enough to cover the costs that come with that service, so they turn to their campaign accounts to make up the difference.
Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, for example, spent roughly $2,000 from his campaign account on 17 separate flower-related purchases — “birthday flowers,” “memorial” flowers, “get well” flowers, “funeral arrangements” and “office gifts” — in between December 2016 and October 2018.
The Manchester Democrat, one of the longest serving legislators at the State House, also spent $491 on “auto repair” in April 2017.
Auto-related expenses also show up in several other disbursements listed on D'Allesandro’s campaign finance reports, each of which list multiple purposes per line item: There was $488 for funeral flowers, auto repairs, a mail fee and Act Blue contribution in January 2017; $454 for reimbursements, campaign-related lunches and auto repairs in January 2018; and $514 for reimbursements, campaign-related meals, auto repairs and a gift for a Canadian dignitary in June 2018.
D'Allesandro said the floral expenses were all to express sympathy or support for constituents, and the auto expenses went toward fixing the car he uses to travel around in his capacity as a legislator every day. Legislators can only stretch their $100 a year salary so far, he said, and it seemed legitimate to use his campaign account to cover costs he incurred while on the job as a lawmaker.
“We never spent any money that we don't think is appropriate, and I want to make that perfectly clear,” D’Allesandro says. “The money we spent is part of my job and what my job is as an elected public official.”
That was the same rationale Sen. John Reagan of Deerfield offered when asked about the $3,000 “Auto Expenses” he paid from his campaign account in November 2016. Reagan, a Republican, said that money went toward mileage reimbursements for trips that were “directly related to driving around the state meeting with people to answer questions or investigate” issues in his role as a state senator.
New Hampshire legislators are eligible for mileage reimbursement “for miles actually traveled while on legislative business,” but that is usually limited to travel between legislators’ homes and the State House.
Reagan also says he wouldn’t have a problem if another candidate wanted to use his or her money on childcare expenses.
“People donate to a candidate because they support a candidate and want them to get elected,” Reagan said. “And by extension, I would think nobody would object to paying expenses that relate to this volunteer job.”
'A very sharp line' between personal, political expenses
Some lawmakers also use their campaign accounts to cover expenses like conference travel or membership fees.
Sen. David Watters, of Dover, spent about $348 in between the 2016 and 2018 elections on membership fees for the Greater Barrington Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Dover Chamber of Commerce and the Falls Chamber of Commerce. Watters says he expenses those memberships because they are an extension of his role as a state senator.
“It's really the best opportunity I have to hear what is on business owners' minds and to hear what they're facing, what issues they might be having with state regulation, workforce, you name it,” Watters said.
“Often times they're going to want to weigh in officially on legislation, to have conversations about bills that are coming up,” Watters added.
Watters’ campaign fundraising reports also list several lump payments back to Watters himself, totaling about $1,545. While the expenses are coded in the reports as “reimbursements” with no additional detail provided, Watters says that money covered things like ads at local community events or pencils he purchased to hand out to students who visit the State House.
Watters said he tries “to keep a very, very sharp line” separating his personal and political expenses.
“To me the bottom line principle is that these funds are donated for the purposes of your election and your campaign expenses, and then also for those things that you're performing as part of your duties,” Watters said.
Few legal tests on the limits of spending
The New Hampshire attorney general’s office provides no specific guidance on what constitutes an acceptable use of campaign funds, and the agency declined to answer questions on the matter.
“The determination of what constitutes an expenditure is fact-specific, and therefore, we cannot comment in the abstract,” Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Chong Yen, who leads the agency’s election law unit, wrote in an email.
Few cases have really tested the limits of how New Hampshire candidates can spend donors’ money. In one notable case, the Legislative Ethics Committee called for the expulsion of former House Speaker Gene Chandler for accepting “substantial cash gifts from various businesses, lobbyists, and individuals in connection with an annual corn roast.”
The ethics committee’s ruling focused largely on Chandler’s solicitation of the money and his failure to properly report it, less on how the money was spent. But the ruling did include a footnote touching on the potential problems that might arise when lawmakers rely on political donors to offset day-to-day living expenses.
“Representative Chandler has always maintained that these funds were used for personal expenses, such as mortgage payments, transportation expenses, and laundry bills,” the committee wrote. “The point of his assertion is that the funds were not used for luxury purposes, but this does not change the nature of the violations. In fact, it might well be thought that an elected official may be more beholden to those funding his necessary living expenses, than to those who might provide funds for luxury purposes.”
But that episode was a mere bump in the road for Chandler, who avoided expulsion by his fellow lawmakers and was eventually re-elected as speaker in 2017. While Chandler no longer serves in the Legislature — he was one of dozens of Republicans who lost their seats in a Democratic wave last fall — he continued to rely on his campaign account to pay for some of the same expenses noted by the ethics committee more than a decade before.
Fundraising reports from the most recent election cycle show that Chandler used his campaign fund to pay for at least $3,700 in gas expenses, $600 on a “portion of snow tires,” $234 to replace a tire “blown out on [the] way to Concord,” $218 for “brake work [and] fall check up” and $226 on dry cleaning.
Chandler said all of those expenditures were related to his work in the Legislature and, in his view, perfectly legal. The problem at the center of the earlier ethics investigation, as he understood it, was that he hadn’t properly reported his donors — not how the money was being used.
“I wouldn't have been able to serve, even as a representative but certainly not in leadership capacities, at the time it takes all year round, if I weren't able to raise money to help with these expenses,” Chandler said.
Without help filling his gas tank, Chandler said he might not have been able to afford to serve in the Legislature. Some would-be lawmakers might say the same about childcare.