Many state legislators hate it when their names show up on lobbyists' monthly expense reports. Getting free food or ballgame tickets may not sit well with constituents.
So some legislators work to avoid it. Not the free food and entertainment -- the disclosure.
Legislators can void expenditures reflected in online reports by reimbursing lobbyists who paid the tab. On the surface, that sounds fine.
But some legislators use campaign funds to pay back the lobbyists. That practice has raised questions in the capital, because state law says campaign contributions "shall not be converted to any personal use."
Take a disappearing expenditure involving House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka. He and his wife, Suzanne, received free tickets to watch the NCAA men's basketball regionals on March 25 from AT&T's suite at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
AT&T lobbyist John Sondag initially reported the tickets as unspecified "entertainment" costing $100 for Jones and $100 for the legislator's wife. But on July 3, Jones' campaign committee, Citizens for Timothy W. Jones, paid $200 to AT&T, calling it a campaign "fundraising expense."
Sondag then amended his lobbying report to show that Jones had reimbursed AT&T. Thus, the expense was no longer included in the total that lobbyists spent in March on the speaker, who was majority floor leader at the time.
Jones and other legislators who defend using campaign funds to reimburse lobbyists say attending dinners and ballgames is part of the job. Legislation is discussed at halftime. The conversation weaves back and forth between basketball and politics.
Jones said in a statement that he holds himself "to the highest ethical standards and I am not influenced by lobbyist spending. To avoid the potential for someone to think otherwise, I reimburse lobbyists for any expenditures.... Transparency remains and always will be, my number one goal."
Critics say the practice of spending campaign contributions on private outings with lobbyists skirts the edge of what the law allows. Also, when it comes to meals during the 4 1/2 -month legislative session, each legislator already receives a $104 daily expense allowance from taxpayers to cover food and lodging.
In any event, the fund switch has one clear drawback for constituents: It makes it harder for them to track the money spent on their legislator.
MURKY CAMPAIGN LAW
At the heart of the issue is a murky campaign finance law, a problem that was highlighted by the Post-Dispatch last year when the newspaper reported that Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, spent thousands of dollars from her campaign fund on clothing and groceries.
Though money from donors can't be converted to personal use, it can be spent on "ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the duties of a holder of elective office."
Also permitted are "expenses associated with the duties of candidacy or of elective office pertaining to the entertaining of or providing social courtesies to constituents, professional associations, or other holders of elective office."
Speaker Jones said that often, when he attends social events, "I discuss many issues with a wide variety of local business owners and community leaders, and I visit with other legislators -- all activities which involve my campaign or legislative duties."
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