Last weekend, a report in the Raleigh News and Observer caught our attention. State Senator Fletcher Hartsell of Concord had apparently spent nearly $100,000 of his campaign money to pay personal credit card bills over the last two years.
On the surface it seems like an egregious violation of state law which prohibits the personal use of campaign funds. We asked WFAE's Julie Rose to look into it and she joined Morning Edition host Duncan McFadyen to discuss the story.
MCFADYEN: Julie, I guess the main question is, did Senator Hartsell break the law with this credit card spending?
ROSE: The simple answer is we don't know yet. The State Board of Elections has asked Senator Hartsell to provide more information about those credit card payments and he says he's cooperating. Here's a bit from him.
HARTSELL "If accounting mistakes were made, I regret them. I'll correct them. As to the immediate issue at hand, I have pulled all my documentation and am in the process of pulling as much additional as the State Board has requested. Frankly I believe that if you make a mistake, the proper thing to do is correct it, and that's what I'll do."
MCFADYEN: So he thinks this is all just a mistake with the way he recorded expenses on these quarterly reports he's required to file?
ROSE: Right – and that's how the State Board of Elections sees it right now, too. The head of campaign finance reporting at the state told me they just don't have enough information to tell if Senator Hartsell broke the law in how he spent campaign money. But he definitely broke the rules in how he's supposed to report the spending. One the reports he lists monthly payments to at least eight different credit cards. In October last year his campaign cut a $5,000 check to American Express and $4,300 the next month for the same card. Several thousand more dollars in that same period went to cards with Bank of America, BBT, Chase, Citibank, Discover, USAA. . .
MCFADYEN: What was he spending that money on?
ROSE: Well that's the problem. He's supposed to provide a detailed list of where the credit card was used and what for – so the state board of elections can be sure it was campaign related, rather than personal. But Hartsell's reports give these really generic explanations for each monthly bill – the AmEx payments, for example, say "Materials, office expense, unreimbursed meals, travel, fuel and research expense."
MCFADYEN: Well all of that is legal spending, isn't it?
ROSE: It is, but again, the rules require a lot more detail than Hartsell is providing. Now it is true that in 2010 the reporting rules changed a bit to make it very clear how much detail is required for each payment – but even before those rules changed, Hartsell should have been offering a lot more detail about his credit card payments. And that brings up an interesting point. Hartsell's been in office for 22 years and during that time the rules about campaign spending have changed a lot. I was actually surprised – I didn't realize how recent a lot of these changes are until speaking with Bob Hall at the government watchdog group Democracy North Carolina.
HALL "It's really less than 10 years ago – candidates could use money for personal purposes – they could use a campaign money to pay for their daughter's college education. Buy a new car with it. There was no law against that. That changed. There are now specific purposes campaign money can be used for."
MCFADYEN: So personal spending is off limits. But candidates can give to each other's campaigns, right?
ROSE: Yes. That's really common with powerful lawmakers in the House and Senate who want the other members of their party to keep electing them to leadership positions.
MCFADYEN: Whose job is it to enforce these reporting rules?
ROSE: It's the state board of elections – specifically the campaign finance department which has five people responsible for auditing thousands of reports filed every three months. These reports are often dozens of pages long. And a lot of candidates – like Fletcher Hartsell are still filing their reports on paper, rather than use the electronic filing system the state provides. That really slows things down. Turns out, Hartsell's been reporting his credit cards this way going back to at least 2006 and the state elections office only realized it when the News and Observer pointed it out recently. So Bob Hall at Democracy North Carolina says two things need to happen – first, everyone should be filing their reports electronically - everyone. And, second, lawmakers need to give the elections office more manpower to track this stuff.
MCFADYEN: Okay, but that's a little tricky isn't it? I mean, it doesn't seem like lawmakers would be all that motivated to have more people picking through the details of their disclosure reports.
ROSE: Precisely. Which is all the more reason for the public, the media and groups like Democracy North Carolina to keep an eye on things. We will be watching to see what more information Senator Hartsell provides about his credit card spending and whether all of it was legit.