State senator’s spending probed
SACRAMENTO -- A top Democrat in the state Senate is being investigated for allegedly using credit cards to charge $397,000 in political expenses without disclosing who was initially paid and for what, as required by campaign finance laws.
State Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said Friday that she was cooperating with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which confirmed its investigation of her in a letter obtained by The Times.
Investigators are looking at the last seven years of credit card expenses. If found in violation, Migden could face up to $60,000 in administrative fines.
Campaign finance experts say the failure to itemize expenses hides from the public whether the money received from campaign contributors is being spent on lavish meals, gifts or travel that improperly benefit the politician without meeting a legitimate campaign purpose.
“Expenses are required to be itemized so we can assure that campaign donations are going to expenses related to campaigns and not toward personal profit or other inappropriate expenses,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a nonpartisan advocacy group.
Migden’s campaign reports simply list the amount spent and the name of the credit card company.
The Fair Political Practices Commission launched an investigation of Migden’s expenses after receiving a formal complaint from Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who is a candidate to unseat her in the June 2008 election.
Migden, who as Senate Democratic Caucus chairwoman helps set legislative priorities, said there was no reason for anyone to file a formal complaint because she had been cooperating with the commission during the last eight months on a “top-to-bottom” audit of her campaign spending. She said any failings in her campaign reporting were inadvertent.
“We’re working with the FPPC to address some issues, to resolve some errors that were self-reported,” Migden said, adding that the lack of itemization of credit card expenses “would be part and parcel of that.”
Campaign spending has recently become a higher-profile issue after The Times reported that Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez spent tens of thousands of dollars from his political accounts on travel, meals and clothing.
State law, specifically Government Code Section 84211, requires that all campaign disbursements using credit cards include an itemization of any expenses over $100, including the name and address of the vendor paid, the amount and “a brief description of the consideration for which each expenditure was made.”
For example, if a credit card bill for $500 is to pay for flowers from a Sacramento florist, the campaign finance report filed by the elected official would have to disclose the name and address of the florist, the amount paid and the political or governmental purpose, such as for fundraising expenses.
The Fair Political Practices Commission has fined dozens of campaigns for violating the itemization rule in the last decade, averaging $2,000 for each violation. One of the biggest cases occurred in 2001 when the state Republican and Democratic parties were fined for not itemizing millions of dollars in expenses.
Violations are normally caught by random, routine audits by the state Franchise Tax Board. However, commission officials said Migden’s campaign reports had not been audited for at least three years.
Her campaign committee reports going back to 2000 include 30 instances in which credit card bills ranging from $219 to $236,431 are listed but lack itemization.
Migden said she had hired James C. Harrison, a prominent campaign attorney, to represent her in dealing with the state watchdog agency.
Harrison said the mistakes stemmed from the use of volunteer bookkeepers who were not familiar with all of the state requirements for campaign finance reporting.
In campaign finance reports filed in the last year, Migden is listed as serving as her own campaign treasurer.
Harrison said the itemized expenses were all proper campaign bills but said a list of them was being compiled for disclosure.
Leno said he had his attorneys file the formal complaint, which also objects to the transfer of funds between Migden’s committees, because the lack of itemization of expenses had gone on unchecked for years.
“It goes right to the heart of the cynicism voters have about the political process,” he said of the incomplete reporting of expenses.
Migden had previously been charged with violations by the Fair Political Practices Commission and fined a total of $110,600 for failing to disclose donations by deadlines set in state law, including twice last year.
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