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Some Clean Elections money went toward laptops, hiring relatives

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Some Clean Elections money went toward laptops, hiring relatives

  • Todd Lang, executive director of the Arizona CItizens Clean Elections Commission, says his staff doesn’t micromanage campaigns. However, he said the commission is aware of the tension between not wanting to interfere and keeping in mind that candidates are spending public money.
    Alyssa Newcomb/Cronkite News ServiceTodd Lang, executive director of the Arizona CItizens Clean Elections Commission, says his staff doesn’t micromanage campaigns. However, he said the commission is aware of the tension between not wanting to interfere and keeping in mind that candidates are spending public money.
  • Nick Dranias, director of the Center for Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute, shown in a 2009 file photo, says publicly financed candidates purchasing computers and paying relatives as campaign workers and consultants are products of a well-meaning but flawed law.
    Alexander MacLean/Cronkite News ServiceNick Dranias, director of the Center for Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute, shown in a 2009 file photo, says publicly financed candidates purchasing computers and paying relatives as campaign workers and consultants are products of a well-meaning but flawed law.

Some of the 107 candidates who received public money to run for the state Legislature this year bought computers, cameras and printers that are theirs to keep and paid relatives as campaign workers and consultants, a Cronkite News Service review found.

Reports accounting for the $3.2 million legislative candidates received from the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission also included $60 for National Rifle Association dues, $650 to have mariachis perform and $229.87 for a “post-debate discussion” with campaign staffers at T.G.I. Friday’s.

Publicly financed candidates are required to justify campaign expenses as legitimate. But there’s little within the rules established by the Clean Elections Commission, which oversees the program, dictating what is and isn’t an acceptable expenditure.

“You think about it being done largely to afford advertisements and signs, things that are specific to a campaign, not things you’d use for the rest of your life necessarily,” said David Berman, a research fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

“I think we need some parameters on this,” he said. “People would be free to buy snowmobiles and canine outfits the way the law is written – whatever comes to their mind.”

Todd Lang, executive director of the Clean Elections Commission, said the commission doesn’t subscribe to the philosophy of micromanaging campaigns. But he said there is a tension between not wanting to interfere and keeping in mind that candidates are spending public money.

“There are occasions when people buy something we would not prefer, but ultimately it’s up to the campaigns,” he said.

Arizona voters created the public financing system by narrowly approving a referendum in 1998. The proposal followed AzScam, a pay-to-play sting that led to 10 percent of the Legislature resigning.

The bulk of the money comes from a surcharge on civil and criminal penalties, while residents also can designate money toward the system on their tax returns. To qualify for Clean Elections money, legislative candidates must collect 220 contributions of $5 to demonstrate a modicum of support.

Clean Elections candidates received $14,319 or $21, 479 for primary campaigns and, if they moved on, another $21,479 or $14,319 depending on whether they requested the higher amount for the primary. In return for that money, they had to forgo contributions from political action committees, businesses, unions and political parties and had to participate in candidate forums.

The Cronkite News Service review focused on reports candidates filed before and after the August primary election and before the Nov. 2 general election. Final campaign finance reports are due to the Secretary of State’s Office by Dec. 2.

At least 11 legislative candidates used Clean Elections money to buy computers within an $800 limit on purchases of fixed assets. Some bought cameras and printers. Current rules allow them to keep that equipment.

Clean Elections Commission rules require candidates to account for any fixed asset purchases worth $300 or more.

Michelle Ugenti, a Republican who won election to a state House the seat representing Fountain Hills, Rio Verde and most of Scottsdale, bought her campaign a laptop when she visited a Best Buy on Aug. 30, recording purchases of $706.38 and $217.89 in her campaign finance reports.

“In my case, my computer crashed, with everything on it,” she said in a telephone interview. “I was simply following the rules laid out by Clean Elections, like I’ve done since I started.”

Catherine H. Miranda, a Democrat who won election to a House seat representing downtown and south Phoenix as well as Guadalupe, reported spending $796.80 Sept. 22 on an iPad.

Cronkite News Service made several attempts to get comment from Miranda but was unable to do so.

Nick Dranias, director of the Center for Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute, which is challenging a key provision of Clean Elections before the U.S. Supreme Court, called such purchases unintended consequences of a well-meaning but flawed system.

“Bottom line is, when you give people free money they abuse that,” he said. “Especially if you give it to them thinking the best of people in a sort of naive way.”

Lang said he and the five members of the commission, a nonpartisan body made up of people from different parties and counties, are aware of the perception that is created when candidates are able to buy electronics and other expensive items with public money and keep them even after their campaigns are over.

The commission has proposed rules, up for consideration at its Dec. 2 meeting, that would require candidates to turn in computers and other fixed assets, such as laptops, cameras and printers, after an election if they are worth more than $200. Candidates would have the option of buying the items back for 75 percent of the retail price; otherwise, the items would go to state surplus.

“Ultimately we decided the benefit here is for the campaigns to have the money to spend,” Lang said. “Why not have them turn in the big-ticket items at the end of the campaign so there’s no concern, no issue?”

Asked whether she thought the proposed change was a good idea, Ugenti said she would absolutely comply.

“If that’s what they choose,” she said. “I follow the rules very strictly.”

Jeff Dial, a Republican who reported spending $792.24 on a laptop during his successful run for a House seat representing Ahwatukee, Tempe and west Chandler, said he’d be happy to turn in fixed assets if the commission requires it.

“That would be a good rule change. I think we have to look out for the taxpayers’ dollars,” he said.

Six Clean Elections candidates confirmed paying relatives to canvass, install and take down signs and serve as consultants. Twice that number reported payments to people with the same last name, but the others didn’t respond to repeated interview requests made over a period of weeks.

Victor Jett Contreras, a publicly funded Democrat who lost a primary bid for state Senate in Miranda’s district, paid his parents, Victor and Sandy, $660 each to knock on doors. He noted that his father has been out of work for two years.

“Would he have done if for free? Possibly,” he said. “But I’m paying other people. Why can’t I pay my own father?”

Contreras said he paid canvassers between $10 and $15 per hour, depending on their experience.

“Canvassing is not fun stuff,” he said. “Knocking on doors the last few days are hell.”

Clean Elections Commission rules leave it up to candidates to decide how much to pay for various services; however, Lang said candidates are expected to pay the market rate.

Sue Dolphin, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat representing much of the northwest Valley, paid her husband, Bill Dolphin, $500 to install her signs.

“A lot of times family members do a lot better job than outside vendors,” she said. “My husband did a very good job. I know he was someone I could trust to do it correctly.”

Rebecca Rios, a Democrat who lost a bid for re-election to a Senate seat representing much of Pinal County as well as parts of Maricopa and Gila counties, paid her father and brother, both named Pete Rios, $725 for one to install her signs and $500 for the other to do poll work. The elder Pete Rios is a former state legislator and currently serves on the Pinal County Board of Supervisors.

She said paying family members is a way of stretching her campaign money. As for compensating her family members rather than asking them to help free of charge, Rios said she was using the system in the fairest way possible.

“I could have easily had my family put up the signs and repair the signs and not reported that, but I think that is more disingenuous because you’re receiving a lot of help you’re not then reporting,” she said.

Ray Cullison II, an unsuccessful GOP primary candidate from Kingman, paid his son $400 to tear down signs after the primary.

“Basically I was reimbursing him for his fuel cost and meals. I have no problems hiring anybody for what needed to be done,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Manuel V. Alvarez, who lost his re-election bid, said living in the small Cochise County town of Elfrida made hiring his family the easiest option. He paid three relatives a total of $2,759.99 to install signs, work on advertisements and consult.

“In a town of 300, where are you going to find people to work for you and your campaign?” he asked.

Bill Mahrer, of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian civil liberties law firm based in Washington, D.C., pointed out that relatives could be knowledgeable about campaigns and hard workers. Still, he said, “If [voters] believe you’re using it as a system of nepotism or simply as a means to hire your relatives, it’s going to be more difficult next time around.”

Lang, of the Clean Elections Commission said it’s well within the rules for candidates to hire family members; however, he said he was aware of the appearance it creates.

“It’s a tough one. It just looks bad,” he said.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, used $60 of Clean Elections money to pay his National Rifle Association dues. He initially told Cronkite News Service that the Clean Elections Commission had deemed that a legitimate expense but later called back to say he was in error and would reimburse the commission.

Among other miscellaneous expenses in the reports: Catherine H. Miranda paid $650 for mariachis for a Sept. 4 event; Eric Carbajal-Bustamante, a Tucson Democrat who lost in the primary, reported spending $385.59 on office supplies at IKEA, a furniture and furnishings store; and Ken Smalley, a Tucson Republican who lost in the general election, reported spending $229.87 on a “post-debate discussion” with staff members at T.G.I. Friday’s.

“This is small stuff, talking about me taking the campaign staff out,” Smalley said. “Did you know you can spend up to $800 on equipment?”

Smalley’s campaign finance reports also noted that he spent $403.66 on a printer at OfficeMax.

Carbajal-Bustamante didn’t respond to repeated phone messages.

Berman, with the Morrison Institute, said the laws need to be more specific in order to make the best use of the public’s money.

“These are questionable kinds of things,” he said. “You might want to rework the law to make sure the public is being best served with the use of their money.”

But Dranias of the Goldwater Institute said that more regulation isn’t the solution.

“They say we can fix that, but the problem is the fix,” he said. “You can’t hammer down on fraud in a political system the same way you can outside of it because of the fact you’re controlling campaigns.”

In interviews, the candidates noted that public financing is valuable because it allowed them to compete.

“I think it’s a way for candidates, like myself, grass-roots candidates, citizen candidates, to have an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have,” Michelle Ugenti said.

Candidates who purchased computers

Cronkite News confirmed computer purchases through campaign finance reports or interviews with candidates. Some candidates who listed amounts paid to stores that offer computers as "miscellaneous" expenses didn't return calls seeking comment:

  • Gene Chewning, Independent, State Rep. District 27, Tucson
  • Don Chilton, Democrat, State Rep. District 7, Cave Creek
  • Robert Compton, Republican, State Rep. District 27, Tucson
  • Caroline Condit, Republican, State Rep. District 15, Phoenix
  • Victor Jett Contreras, Democrat, State Sen. District 16, Phoenix
  • Chester Crandell, Republican, State Rep. District 5, Heber
  • Jeff Dial, Republican, State Rep. District 20, Chandler
  • Karina Guerrero, Democrat, State Rep. District 4, Phoenix
  • Catherine Miranda, Democrat, State Rep. District 16, Phoenix
  • Michelle Ugenti, Republican, State Rep. District 8, Scottsdale
  • Rae Waters, Democrat, State Rep. District 20, Phoenix

Clean Elections Commission returns $20 million to state

One thing the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission and the Goldwater Institute can agree on: Any extra money the commission returns to the state's ailing general fund is a good thing.

The commission is budgeted to return $20 million to the state, Todd Lang, its executive director, said in mid-November.

"Obviously, we're trying to be as aggressive as possible, given the state's financial situation," he said. "And that $20 million wouldn't be there if Clean Elections wasn't the law."

When asked in October about the potential for any leftover money to be given to the state, Nick Dranias, director of the Center for the Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute, said, "Even though that's not going to fix any budget problems by itself, every little bit helps."

Clean Elections matching-funds case before U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court was set to decide whether it will hear arguments regarding a case challenging a matching-funds provisions of Arizona's Clean Elections system of publicly financed campaigns.

Last June, the court put an injunction on matching funds in Arizona for this election cycle, which political observers said may have altered outcomes in statewide races, most notably the Democratic and Republican attorney general primaries, which pitted one privately and one publicly financed candidate against each other.

Matching funds are designed to level the playing field by triggering money to publicly financed candidates when their privately financed opponents outspend their initial Clean Elections disbursement.

In McComish v. Bennett, the Goldwater Institute challenged matching funds on the basis that they infringe on a privately financed candidate's First Amendment rights by suppressing speech.

"They punish people for exercising their First Amendment right to spend money supporting the things they believe in and projecting their ideas to the public," said Nick Dranias, director of the Center for Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute.

A U.S. Superior Court judge agreed with that argument in January, but in May the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Clean Elections law.

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