JACKSON -- State Sen. Dean Kirby leases a vehicle, pays for auto insurance and gasoline, and buys Braves season tickets with money from his campaign account.
He spends thousands a year on a campaign credit card, despite having no opponents for re-election for most of his 25 years in office. He says much of this spending is to cover expenses from serving as a lawmaker.
But he also receives thousands of dollars a year from taxpayers for expenses. He received $19,440 last year to cover travel, food and other costs beyond the $23,575 considered salary for the part-time legislative job. Kirby lives in Pearl, just a short distance from the Capitol in Jackson.
A Clarion-Ledger investigation shows that for many Mississippi politicians, campaign funds have become personal expense accounts or a second income -- potentially tax free. The spending is largely paid for by lobbyists and special interests doing business with state government. They otherwise would not be allowed to lavish cash, gifts or a second income on politicians.
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Campaign funds are shielded from taxes, ethics and other laws because they are ostensibly to be used only for campaigning and records of them are -- ostensibly -- open to the public.
Most states and the federal government, in efforts to reduce the corrosive influence of money in politics, have stringent reporting requirements. Mississippi doesn't.
Most states also have prohibitions against personal spending of campaign money.
In Mississippi, the practice is common.
State Rep. Mark Formby has bought suits and an $800 pair of cowboy boots with campaign funds. He says they're a legislative expense -- he doesn't wear them at home in Picayune. He also pays for an apartment in Jackson year-round and legislative travel from his campaign account. He appears to spend very little on anything remotely related to campaigning from his campaign funds.
But taxpayers also pay Formby for expenses, including $26,598 last year for travel, lodging and other costs. Coupled with his legislative salary, his total from the state for the part-time job is $50,172, according to a state auditor's report.
Formby's campaign account is filled almost exclusively with donations from lobbyists, big business representatives and PACs. At last report he had more than $100,600 on hand.
Formby questioned whether he is being singled out because he reports expenditures such as clothing, boots and rent. He said others don't properly detail spending. He appears to be correct about the absence of detailed reporting.
Politicians are supposed to detail the money moving into and out of their campaign funds in regular reports available to the public. But many reports don't add up.
House Speaker Philip Gunn loaned himself $25,000 from his campaign his first year in office, with public records showing he paid back only $11,000. Even though he didn't report it, he says he paid the rest back over time, personally eating many small campaign expenses until the balance was nil. But he also spends tens of thousands of dollars a year on a campaign credit card with no explanation of what he bought.
Campaign expenditures of $200 or more are supposed to be itemized. But many politicians just list lump-sum payments to a credit card or themselves with no detail of the spending.
Attorney General Jim Hood has paid himself and two credit cards a total of $268,180 from his campaign account over nearly four years, with no details of the spending.
Many campaign finance reports are incomplete, incorrect, illegible or missing from the secretary of state's public website.
State Rep. Deborah Butler Dixon's campaign reports indicate she spent $7,200 on gasoline over just a few months last year, including $1,200 in June.
Otherwise, her reports don't show much at all. Dixon filed a blank form covering 2012, and her report covering 2014 is missing from the website. Explanations for one of her disbursements of $1,000 lists "Auto GAS-Travel" as the payee, "CASH" for the address and "Auto GAS (CASH)" as the purpose. A $5,000 expense is listed as "Casual Labors," with no other info.
Dixon said she spent so much on gasoline because she lives in Hinds County so she doesn't get legislative mileage reimbursement from taxpayers. She said she had a blank report because she spent her own money that year. She would not answer other questions.
Enforcement of state campaign finance laws is nearly nonexistent, and past reform measures have been snuffed out quickly in the Legislature. The issue came to the fore recently, when The Clarion-Ledger reported that multiple sources, including one of his former campaign staffers, confirmed the FBI is investigating State Auditor Stacey Pickering's campaign-finance records.
Pickering has paid himself, his wife and credit cards more than $170,000 from his campaign account over nearly four years, most listed as travel reimbursement during off-years for election.
Pickering bought a BMW 325i, listed on his campaign finance report as a "fundraising fee expense," that he gave to his daughter. Pickering also purchased an RV that he initially said was to save on hotels while campaigning. His wife, in a column she writes for the Disney Parks Moms website, said that after her family got an RV, "We now consider Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & campground our second home."
'Recipe for ethical disaster'
Mississippi law lacks a clear prohibition on politicians using campaign donations for personal expenses.
Combine this with weak campaign finance reporting regulations, weak ethics laws and almost nonexistent enforcement, and Mississippi has what some experts and politicians say is an invitation to corruption.
"It seems like you have a recipe for an ethical disaster -- bad reporting with the ability to turn it into personal use," said Larry Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C. "And if the laws you do have aren't being enforced, that could lead people down very bad roads.
"When you have virtual nonreporting, very lax or nonexistent laws about personal use and add to it that some candidates are virtually living off the money, that's really adding pressure on candidates to listen to the lobbyist donors because it's not just for a campaign, but the ability to live. Also, it becomes hard to tell the difference between a campaign contribution and a bribe. If a candidate wants to live well, and everybody knows his campaign is used for living expenses, a lobbyist could take advantage of that."
The Rev. J. Curtis Pace, after his first, unsuccessful foray into state politics running for a Neshoba County state Senate seat last year, has a more definitive take on Mississippi's campaign finance setup.
"It's legalized bribery," Pace said.
"You hear about the power and influence of money in politics, but you don't really see it as concrete until you start to look into it directly," Pace said.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst had a similar takeaway from his unsuccessful run for attorney general against Hood.
"What really put it on my radar was I heard our attorney general was handing out contracts to various attorneys in state and out of state," Hurst said. " I looked at campaign finance reports, and there were all these recipients of contracts making donations. Then, there's $7,000 or $8,000 a month in totally nonitemized (campaign account) spending in nonelection years."
Hurst, who as a federal prosecutor handled some of Mississippi's biggest public corruption cases, said, "It made me immediately think about money laundering."
"It really raised suspicion in my mind," Hurst said. "We're talking about three nonelection years before a campaign, and it added up to almost a quarter of a million dollars over three years, completely nonitemized."
Hurst made this a campaign issue. He also made his campaign credit card statements and his personal income tax forms public online, challenging Hood to do the same. Hood did not.
Hurst said he tried during his race to file credit card documents itemizing his campaign spending with the secretary of state's office, but "they refused," saying they weren't required and wouldn't be posted.
Hood has refused to answer specific questions about his campaign spending.
Taxes and 'double dipping'
The widespread contention among Mississippi politicians that using campaign funds for personal expenses is "legal" is based on the absence of a clear prohibition and on a 1978 attorney general's opinion.
But that opinion includes warnings about legal, ethical and tax implications of such practice.
The opinion says, "Simply put, a campaign contribution is not a gift to be used as a person may please."
The opinion notes that conversion of campaign funds for personal use "could be considered income and subject to income tax."
State Department of Revenue spokeswoman Kathy Waterbury said politicians using campaign funds on expenses for which the state reimburses them could pose a problem with "double dipping."
"If you are being reimbursed by the state for your costs and also pulling it out of your campaign, one or the other would be taxable income," Waterbury said.
It's unclear whether Mississippi politicians are generally paying taxes on any spending from campaign accounts. Some say they don't because they don't consider any of their spending personal. Others say they do, while others say both. None of numerous elected officials asked have supplied credit card or tax documentation to date.
Kirby said, "Anything I've even doubted, I pay taxes on." His CPA sent a statement to The Clarion-Ledger that said, "Dean Kirby included personal use of the auto leased through his campaign as taxable income on his income tax return."
Hood declined an interview did not answer numerous emailed questions about his campaign finances. Instead his campaign manager, Jonathan Compretta, sent a statement that said, "Campaign finance laws are clear as to the reporting requirements for candidates seeking public office. General Hood has met those requirements. He has paid all state and federal taxes that are owed as prepared by a certified public accountant."
Pickering has said, at turns, that he hasn't used campaign funds for personal expenses and that he has paid taxes on any personal spending.
He has said he paid "tag, taxes and title" for the BMW and RV. For a $3,000 garage door for his Laurel home, Pickering said, "I filed it on my personal taxes, following the law."
In a recent interview at The Clarion-Ledger, Pickering said, "No," when asked if he has used campaign money for personal expenses, but when asked about the RV and Disney said, "When we have we've reimbursed. There has never been an outright expenditure. We've paid taxes on it or reimbursed ourselves. I have paid the taxes on those issues we thought would be."
He said, "We have complied with state law, federal law every step of the way. Our statements have been very clear and concise."
Waterbury said DOR has recently received numerous questions about campaign finances and taxes. She said that in lieu of clear state laws on what constitutes personal or taxable spending, she tells people the state would follow federal law and sends them a copy of pertinent code.
Federal law says in general, "Using campaign funds for personal use is prohibited" but does allow some spending for "individual's duties as a holder of federal office."
But federal law also considers as personal "a home mortgage, rent or utility payment," clothing purchases, noncampaign-related auto expenses or noncampaign-related trips or vacations.
And, Waterbury reiterated, "You're not supposed to be making money on reimbursements, or else it's taxable."
Calls for reform
For several years, Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, has been a lone voice calling for campaign finance reform. He's filed bills to prohibit personal use of campaign money and to prohibit politicians "cashing in" their campaign accounts when they leave public office.
"Public servants shouldn't have a golden parachute when they leave office," Zuber said.
Zuber said he first proposed such legislation years ago after a constituent at a town hall meeting gave him an earful about politicians using campaign money for personal expenses.
"I didn't know it was allowed," Zuber said. "I checked on it and found out you could do it."
Zuber said he hasn't recently pushed for an outright ban on personal use and has lowered his expectations -- he's only pushing for the ban on cashing in when leaving office. He said a total ban "gets into a lot of gray area" when politicians use their campaign money for political activity not directly related to campaigning.
Hood and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann are pushing for reform this legislative session. Both are pushing measures to require itemization of campaign credit card expenditures.
Hood further wants a prohibition on personal spending from campaign accounts.
Both Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said they would not oppose such reform.
Reeves said, "If you look at my campaign finance reports, what you will find, I would argue, is that we provide more information than anybody else in state government. For the expenditures we make, we outline what those expenses are for We only spend money on campaign related expenses. I think that's what my donors expect of me, and we spend a significant amount of resources ensuring that."
Both Reeves and Bryant's campaign reports do generally provide more detail, and their travel expenses while running large statewide campaigns are in some cases lower than those of politicians far down-ticket.
But Reeves' campaign over nearly four years did have more than $80,000 in nonitemized credit card spending. Bryant's for the same period had about $8,400.
Reeves said, "My general thoughts on campaign finance are -- and I've said this for years -- I'm for unlimited contributions and for unlimited disclosure. I don't think we ought to limit corporate contributions or limit what is disclosed to the public. I'm fine with showing every contribution that's made and every expenditure."
Hood also declined an interview or to specifically answer questions about state campaign finance laws and regulations or about what prompted his call for reform.
But in a written statement Hood said, "As previously stated, current Mississippi law does not prohibit the use of campaign funds for non-campaign related expenditures. The law is clear as to the reporting requirements that must be followed.
"That said, voters want and deserve more transparency in this process and a new standard that every candidate must follow to alleviate the unnecessary speculation and innuendo that arises every four years," Hood said. "That's why the Office of Attorney General is asking the Legislature to reform the law as it pertains to the reporting of campaign finances."
Noble said reporting transparency should be the bedrock of any state campaign finance reform, to earn the public's trust.
"To me one of the biggest problems with a system like this would be lack of public confidence in the Legislature and government," Noble said. "Even if people are voting their conscience and not influenced by money, a system like this would leave too much room for doubt.
"Campaign contributions are supposed to subsidize your campaign, not your lifestyle."
Read more from The Clarion-Ledger's Public Office, Private Gain series.