Lunches, cellphones, and airport lounge fees: How some Alaska lawmakers use leftover campaign cash

JUNEAU — Alaska lawmakers are using leftover campaign cash to pay for lunches, cellphones and airport lounge memberships, stretching the boundaries of the state law limiting use of the money, according to recent disclosure statements.

Campaign finance reforms enacted in 1996 allow public officials to use those "POET" accounts — short for "public office expense term" — only for expenses "associated with the candidate's serving as a member of the Legislature," and not for personal or political purposes, according to state law.

Nonetheless, the Senate president, Fairbanks Republican Pete Kelly, used his account last year to travel to Anchorage for at least one political fundraiser, and for what his expense report referred to as a monthly "campaign cell phone" bill — in a year in which he wasn't up for re-election.

Two other Republican senators, Kevin Meyer of Anchorage and Click Bishop of Fairbanks, spent hundreds of dollars on food and drink at the Legislature's cafeteria — at a time they were receiving payments of more than $200 a day for food and lodging expenses.

And Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, spent $5,000 from his account between the time he lost his Aug. 16 primary to when he left office in January. Among his expenses: $800 on two pairs of glasses, $500 on a cellphone, $1,500 on air travel and, according to his report, $785 on Alaska Airlines "membership dues" — the same price for a three-year pass to the airline's Alaska Lounge.

Herron filled his POET account just after the 2014 election with $9,000 — two-thirds of all the cash he raised for his campaign, in which he ran unopposed. Many of his contributions came from business and union political action committees, and there were $500 donations — the legal maximum — from Lynn Reinwand, the wife of lobbyist Jerry Reinwand; Mark Palmer, the president of Seattle-based Ocean Beauty Seafoods; and Gerald Neeser, who owns an Anchorage construction company.

None of the money came from inside Herron's Bethel-area district.

Herron, reached by phone and asked about the POET expenses, said he was busy and declined to answer. He didn't respond to subsequent messages.

Bishop and Meyer both said they were following state law.

Kelly wouldn't answer a question about the POET accounts at a Friday news conference.

"Why can't you get your questions answered?" Kelly said a few minutes later. "That's because your reporting is bull—-."

Legislators have been facing increasing scrutiny of their own spending during the state's budget crisis, and on Thursday, a panel of House members proposed a three-fourths reduction in lawmakers' daily expense payments, which currently add up to about $20,000 a year on top of a $50,000 salary.

[House considers slashing expense payments to Alaska lawmakers]

Like those "per diem" payments, a handful of lawmakers appear to be treating the POET accounts as a supplement to their legislative income.

The POET accounts are not public money, though lawmakers do use public money for their separate "office accounts" — $12,000 for House members and $20,000 for senators — which are also to be used for official expenses.

The POET accounts are leftover campaign cash from contributors, many of whom want something from state government that needs legislative approval.

Winning and losing candidates have a Feb. 1 deadline to close out their campaign accounts, and there's a cap on the amount that can be transferred to their next campaign — $5,000 for House candidates and $10,000 for Senate candidates.

That means that for a legislator who raised large amounts of money that went unspent, the extra cash has to go somewhere else — like to political parties, to charity, or to a POET account. POET account transfers are limited to $20,000 for senators and $10,000 for House members.

Before the 1996 reforms took effect, state law allowed candidates to write themselves personal checks out of their campaign accounts, spending the money on anything.

The new restriction on spending for personal benefit was the most popular piece of that 1996 campaign finance bill, said David Finkelstein, a former Anchorage Democratic House member who once gathered voter signatures for an initiative campaign that preceded the reforms.

"The No. 1 thing they would jump on when you would tell them what the initiative does was to stop politicians from pocketing campaign funds. That was universal," Finkelstein said in a phone interview. "It's absolutely outrageous behavior to take funds that were intended to participate in the political process and use them for your personal benefit."

Alaska's campaign finance enforcement agency, the Alaska Public Offices Commission, has seen the Legislature slice its budget in half over the past three years. And it does not review or audit lawmakers' POET spending — though it might if it had more money, said Heather Hebdon, the commission's executive director.

She referred a reporter to a state regulation that outlines acceptable POET account expenses, which include travel, office equipment, flowers and cards for constituents, and mailers. The rules are interpreted broadly, Hebdon added, and other types of expenses are generally treated as allowable if they can be somehow connected to legislative business.

[Read the state regulations on POET accounts]

She declined to comment on specific POET expenses disclosed by lawmakers in the past year.

More than 30 lawmakers — there are 60 in the House and Senate — reported spending money from POET accounts last year. Most of the money went toward office expenses.

Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon, for example, created a $15,000 POET account after her 2014 election, which she won with 77 percent of the vote. She spent $365 last year on "seamstress services for office uniforms," and another $90 on photos of the Senate and the Capitol steps.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck put $7,000 into his POET account after his 2014 campaign, in which he ran unopposed. In the past year, he spent $100 on stationery, $280 on an "office fridge and microwave," and another $2,900 on a contract for bill research.

But other POET account payments were for expenses that could have been covered by the per diem lawmakers receive from the state, or were for items with a less obvious official purpose.

The House Speaker, Dillingham Democrat Bryce Edgmon, used his account to pay for five meals during last year's legislative session, a period when lawmakers were receiving payments of more than $200 a day to cover food and lodging expenses. Each of the meals cost more than $50.

Edgmon didn't respond to an interview requests, but said through a spokesman that his meals were "Legislature-related" and not personal, without elaborating. An aide to Edgmon said the meals were with legislative staff, where they discussed official business.

Bishop, the Fairbanks senator, spent $378 on his cafeteria bill in May, while Meyer spent $630 over four months.

The cafeteria is already subsidized with public funds approved by the Legislature.

Bishop raised $120,000 for his 2014 campaign; he was unopposed in the primary election and won 64 percent of the vote in the general. The following January, he transferred $16,000 into a POET account, which he's also used to pay for a copy of the Code of Federal Regulations, a yearly subscription to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and trips within his Interior district.

In a brief interview, Bishop said his meal expenses were cleared by state regulators. Asked if his constituents would accept them, he said he hadn't asked them.

Meyer was unopposed in the 2014 primary, then won 70 percent in the general election and was chosen by his colleagues to be Senate president.

He raised $130,000 and had enough left over to pay for $2,100 in gift cards for volunteers, a $2,800 "campaign celebration dinner" at Kinley's Restaurant, and $4,800 more in "volunteer gifts" from Alaska Textiles and Fred Meyer — along with a $2,500 donation to Anchorage Christian Schools.

He also transferred $7,300 into a future campaign account and the maximum $20,000 into his POET account, which he's used to pay his cafeteria bills for the past two years.

Meyer declined to be interviewed, instead providing a written statement that said he follows state law and regulations — and that campaign finance regulators should propose stronger limits or do more enforcement if they feel it's necessary.

"I have purchased lunches for my leadership team from the lounge when I have meetings over the lunch hour. I have purchased lunch for my staff from the lounge for lunchtime staff meetings. These are all acceptable uses for POET account funds," said Meyer, without saying whether he'd purchased lunches for himself.

Lawmakers have also purchased electronics, televisions and artwork for their offices from their POET accounts. And some used their POET accounts for subscriptions, like Big Lake Republican Rep. Mark Neuman, who bought hunting and fishing magazines.

Neuman also used his account to pay for Costco memberships, which he said was for buying water and coffee for his office. And he bought memberships to the Alaska Airlines lounge.

He said they allow him to do legislative work on official trips Outside.

"Because we try to get discount rates, you end up on three different flights and you've got a lot of seat time sitting there in the airport," Neuman said, adding that most of his travel is on legislative business.

Eagle River Republican Rep. Dan Saddler used his POET account for a $25 subscription to the New Yorker magazine. In an interview, he said that was a "legitimate expense."

"I think the last five covers have been on Trump, so it's nice to see what the folks back East are thinking about national issues," Saddler said. He added: "It's POET money. Where's the downside in knowing what the rest of the world is thinking and saying?"

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