Just before Christmas 2014, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk spent $562 in political contributions at Country Woods, which hand-crafts wooden urns for the ashes of cremated pets.
Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt used his campaign account for $423 in “supplies” at Tumi, a brand of premium luggage and business accessories. State Rep. Tara Mack used campaign funds to pay for more than $2,000 in child care.
Minnesota legislators and their rivals raise millions of dollars every election cycle to win seats in the state House and Senate. Most contributions to Minnesota legislators go toward mailing ads, hosting fundraisers and handing out Popsicles at parades. Sometimes, the expenses are a little more unusual.
A review of hundreds of legislative campaign finance reports turned up charges as varied as a hotel room on the Las Vegas Strip, child care, golf outings and paying fines for campaign violations.
Gary Goldsmith, the executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, said the law is clear that legislators cannot use campaign money for personal expenses.
But that is not the end of the story. Legislators can use campaign money to pay for certain costs they incur in the course of being a legislator. So, for instance, they can hire an extra assistant to perform constituent service. They can spend money for extra office supplies and computers, including thousands of dollars at Mall of America’s Apple store, as Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, did last year.
Mack, R-Apple Valley, used campaign funds to pay for $2,316 in child care. She said her family personally pays for child care during campaign events and reimburses themselves about half the money to ensure they stay within the law. State statutes deem child care during campaigning an allowable expense.
As for the pet urn expense? Alyssa Siems Roberson, a spokeswoman for Bakk, said the campaign money was spent on “mementos given to some staff who have gone above and beyond the call of duty.”
Serving in the Legislature is generally a part-time job. Rank-and-file members earn a salary of $31,140, but legislative leaders get a bump of $12,456. Many legislators have outside jobs, often as lawyers, teachers and farmers.
State law permits legislators to use campaign money for travel to public policy conferences, as did Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who used $1,100 in campaign money to fly to Las Vegas and pay for a room at the Tropicana for a conference training LGBT leaders. And state Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, who spent $5,287 on airfare and hotels for conferences last year, including the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and the National Foundation of Women Legislators.
State Rep. Cindy Pugh, R-Chanhassen, spent at least $3,393 on traveling last year, including a flight to San Diego with other GOP lawmakers to the annual conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Those trips are all allowed as long as lawmakers don’t use the money to pay for family to attend or extend the trip beyond reason.
“You can’t use campaign money for personal use. So the question for the board is: When is it personal, and when is it not personal? And that has some gray areas,” Goldsmith said.
State campaign finance officials occasionally punish legislators who violate the law.
In 2012, a three-judge panel at the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings levied a civil penalty of $500 against then-Rep. Ernie Leidiger, R-Mayer, for using campaign funds to pay a speeding ticket.
In the past, with hundreds of paper filings by candidates, the board only investigated matters that were brought to their attention, Goldsmith said. There was no spot-check system to look for unusual spending. “We rely on people to notify and tell us,” he said.
Now that most of the reports are filed electronically and entered into a database, the board will begin using computer programs to look for unusual spending or unusual sums, Goldsmith said.
Many campaign reports revealed the expenses that go into politicking at small-town parades, where candy, Popsicles, dog treats, and auto repair for cars in the parade all add up. And many legislators, particularly in the House GOP, spent hundreds of dollars on flowers.
Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, paid $145 for a Sam’s Club membership. Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, spent about $500 on a 24-inch TV and a projector, which he classified in his report as “expenses of serving in office.”
Republican legislators like Reps. Tony Cornish and Dan Fabian spent money on memberships in sportsman’s clubs, which, given their ties to the gun-rights community, appeared to qualify as campaign expenses.
Senate DFLers spent substantial sums on the golf course — far more than the other caucuses. They used $28,745 in campaign donations for golf expenses last year, playing rounds at a scenic corporate retreat in Lake Elmo. Bakk spent another $4,421 from his own account on golf event prizes.
Even when Minnesota politicians land in legal trouble, most draw from their political donations to address the penalties.
In 2014, the Senate DFL caucus used $100,000 of its political donations to pay one of the largest fines ever levied for campaign violations in Minnesota. The state finance board found that the DFL Senate improperly coordinated 2012 campaign mailings with candidates.
And last year, Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, used $825 from his election fund to pay a campaign violation fine.
Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, used $14,000 from his campaign account last year to pay legal fees to defend himself during an ethics investigation.
The Minnesota Senate is probing his activities at the now-closed nonprofit Community Action of Minneapolis, where leaders allegedly misspent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer funds.