Abuse shows campaign surplus rules need improvement

Too many state legislators and statewide elected officials are playing fast and loose with surplus campaign funds.

A recent Associated Press review of the so-called surplus accounts reveals hundreds of expenses by politicians from both sides of the aisle that are questionable at best.

Candidates are allowed to hold on to campaign cash between elections. They have options for how to disperse the money. They can return it to donors. They can transfer it to their political party for use in other campaigns. They can donate it to charity.

But the area where far too many elected officials are testing the limits of the law is expenditures defined as public office-related expenses.

Here are a few examples of what can only be considered suspect expenses:

 • Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, spent $7,000 from his campaign war chest on clothing. He said the suits he bought qualified as a proper expenditure because he only wears formal attire in his role as a state legislator.

According to The Associated Press, other state legislators who spent surplus campaign funds on clothes included Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond; Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, and Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester.

 • Rep. Charles Ross, R-Naches, reported spending $1,250 on an iPad in 2011, well above the retail price for the top model, according to AP. He followed up that purchase six months later by spending $900 on another iPad.

 • State Auditor Brian Sonntag spent $1,000 of his campaign fund surplus on Seattle Mariners baseball tickets that he then gave away at auctions, church events and to members of his staff in the auditor’s office.

 • State Lt. Gov. Brad Owen had his fair share of questionable expenditures, too, including $760 at an Olympia liquor store for various after-hours functions, $263 at a Walla Walla winery and $583 for a staff lunch in Seattle.

Surplus campaign accounts typically receive very little scrutiny and the state Public Disclosure Commission lacks clear guidelines for what qualifies as an office-related expense.

The state’s campaign watchdog agency needs to do a better job of providing guidance on which expenditures are allowed and which ones are not.

Without those guidelines, too many elected officials are testing the boundaries of the law and showing a lack of restraint.

This state is credited with having some of the most transparent public disclosure laws in the county. But the guidelines for surplus account expenditures clearly need to be improved.

For too many years, the burden of proof rested with elected officials to show these expenses are related to their service as public officials. There are too many examples of abuse to leave them with that much discretion.