Take Note: Angela Couloumbis And Brad Bumsted On Uncovering Obscured Campaign Spending In Pa.

Oct 30, 2020

A year-long investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA found lawmakers across Pennsylvania are obscuring campaign spending by not reporting the details to the public -- which is legal in the state. 

Spotlight PA reporter Angela Couloumbis and bureau chief of weekly watchdog paper The Caucus, Brad Bumsted, are part of that investigation team. They found state House and Senate candidates spent nearly $3.5 million in recent years that cannot be fully traced. The investigation led to a push for sweeping campaign-finance reforms in the General Assembly. 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Min Xian: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Min Xian. A yearlong investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA found lawmakers across Pennsylvania are obscuring campaign spending by not reporting the details to the public, which is legal in the state. Spotlight PA reporter, Angela Couloumbis, and Bureau Chief of weekly watchdog paper, The Caucus, Brad Bumstead, are part of that investigation team. They found State House and Senate candidates spend nearly $3.5 million that cannot be fully traced. The investigation led to a push for sweeping campaign finance reforms in the General Assembly. Angela and Brad, welcome to Take Note. The story that you reported on is about obscure campaign spending. What is that? Angela, do you want to start?

Angela Couloumbis: Sure, we were looking through campaign finance records and noticed that when you start looking on the expenditure side, and you're trying to figure out what candidates are spending money on, often the explanations that are provided in the explanation box are very vague. So obscure spending is effectively when a candidate reports spending money but doesn't say what the money was actually spent on. It just gives a very broad description. To give you an example, say a candidate has gone out to lunch with a lobbyist and has gone to a very specific restaurant; what you'll know, in looking at the campaign finance report, is that it'll be described simply as a meal, and you'll never know who it was with or necessarily where.

Min Xian: Anything to add to that, Brad?

Brad Bumstead: Yeah, well, it's really [inaudible] that appears in a general forum on a campaign finance record, but isn't specific, doesn't break down, say, what we found, for instance, trips to Europe and other things that a politician wouldn't want to put on the report. But it's money that can't be traced back to the ultimate recipient. That's the real test of it. I mean, one good example of that is we discovered that some legislators, legislative leader, for instance, then House Speaker, Mike Turzai, his campaign allowed the campaign manager to go to a drugstore and get gift cards that could be used by the the volunteers for the campaign. And they could spend that on anything they wanted. So you see $800 worth of CVS gift cards-- what's that tell you? Nothing. You know, they claimed it was for gas and pizza for volunteers, and just a quick way to get at that. But how do you know? You know, and that's just one slice of it. But then there are a lot of different ways, a lot of different slices. And I'd have to say that not everybody was trying to hide it. I think some clearly we're trying to hide it. But there are others who were just lackadaisical about their reporting or any specifics, and maybe didn't have bad intent, but there clearly were some who were trying to prevent people from seeing what they were actually spending the money on.

Min Xian: And I was going to ask: The investigation began in 2018 when you and your team began asking for campaign spending records of state legislatures through this one provision in the Pennsylvania election law, which makes that information available to the public. What did you learn about how this provision works? How well it works in your reporting? Brad, you want to start?

Brad Bumstead: These requests we made for records to get the material we used to put together the story were not through the Right To Know law, that's what a lot of people might assume. They were requests under election law to the Department of State, which is required to tell the candidate to make the records available to reporters. So we did, you know, dozens of requests like that to get these very general, vague reports. And the candidates are required to provide copies if you want of those. And it was hit or miss. I mean, there were some people who just didn't-- there was actually one person who didn't respond at all. There have been a few who took months to provide some basic records on it. We just have to keep reminding them, going back to the Department of State saying, "Where is this stuff?" So it took, you know, five to six months to get everything we were looking for under this statute.

Angela Couloumbis: To reiterate what Brad said, I mean, campaigns in Pennsylvania are supposed to keep what are called vouchers of their spending, going back three years. And they're supposed to keep them on file. And if a member of the public requests them, they're supposed to make them available. As Brad described, it's not a very direct process, you have to put in that request through the Department of State, which oversees elections in Pennsylvania. But they're, you know, what we found is that varying campaigns really define vouchers differently. The State Department interprets them to mean receipts. And yet, there's no requirement that they have to be itemized. And there isn't any penalty if the candidates don't keep them on file as required. So we would get things, like, we would get receipts sometimes, but sometimes we would just get a credit card statement. And that became a quote unquote, voucher. And it's also, I should note, a lot of this is coming in, in paper form, it's not digitized. So we found ourselves having to sort through thousands of pages of either credit card receipts, or actual, you know, receipts like you would get if you purchase something at a gas station.

Min Xian: Yeah. And I think that goes back to the point that Brad was making about, you know, you can look at them, but they don't really tell you much. And, in fact, your reporting uncovered $3.5 million in these obscured campaign spending from State House and Senate candidates between 2016 to 2018. What does the current Pennsylvania campaign finance law say about this kind of spending?

Angela Couloumbis: Well, Pennsylvania has some of the weakest campaign finance laws in the country. You can basically spend money, campaign money on anything that goes towards influencing the outcome of an election. And, like I mentioned before, there are so many different ways to interpret that, it can be interpreted very broadly. We've seen examples in the past of people writing off, you know, gym memberships because, you know, being fit and looking good could be construed as somehow being beneficial to one's reelection chances. So I think what this did was really spotlight just how it's, you know, broad, and if you're a good government person, how weak Pennsylvania's campaign finance laws are.

Min Xian: And regarding this idea of "open to interpretation," and I think, to quote a apart from your reporting, it says, "It leaves room for gaming the system." Brad, can you talk to us about the implications of this? Of the fact that the money, how it's spent is open to interpretation.

Brad Bumstead: Well, the implications are pretty clear. And the public, looking at the campaign finance report of their own legislator or somebody they want to run against, really doesn't know how they spent the money. There's no accountability for it and there's no transparency. So that's the biggest thing, that the public is deprived of the most basic aspect of campaign finance, which is knowing how-- who the money came from and how it was spent. In most cases, we know where it came from. But in what we're doing with campaign money, we don't know where it was spent.

There's another kind of dark money that deals where, you know, just the reverse-- you don't know where it's coming from. And donors are anonymous. In the 501(c)(4) packs that we're seeing commercials from any night you watch TV, now there's bound to be a super PAC or some other well, finance group with dark money that puts on ads, usually hit pieces about the opponent. But that's a whole other aspect and it's hard not to confuse them, but we were, at the time, only writing about why the reports are so-- the law is so vague, and then the reports are so vague that you don't know how the money is being spent. And when you ask to find out from the candidate how it's being spent, you have to wrestle with them and you're lucky if you get the documents or get any answers. Some took it seriously, a lot did not.

Min Xian: The process of gathering these financial records took months for the investigation as you have shared, two of the people that you've looked into, Jake Corman and Joe Scarnati, actually represents the districts in the WPSU listening area. So it feels very close to home. Tell us a little bit more about the process. Whose records did the team look into? What were the major roadblocks, Brad?

Brad Bumstead: Oh, sure. It started out, we began looking at Senator Scarnati -- he's the President Pro Tempore -- because he had lots of big figures on his campaign expenses that weren't clear, you know, what they were for. They were sort of vague, very general. And we started getting his and then as we looked at those, we thought, we better start looking at others and see if other people were doing it. And then we just really started and focused on the Senate and the House leadership of both parties. And as we went through all of those, meantime, our partner in Pittsburgh, Mike Wereschagin, had crunched and put together this database that showed who the biggest dark spenders were. And of course, Scarnati was at or near the top, but there were others. And they weren't leaders. And so we started contacting those people and getting their documents through the Department of State. And so it just kept building on itself. And, you know, really took a year but there was a built in maybe two months there were nothing happened, where Scarnati just hadn't decided whether he was going to provide the records or didn't provide them. And it took quite a while. Once that came through, then that sort of broke the logjam.

Min Xian: Angela?

Angela Couloumbis: Yeah, I mean, to reiterate what Brad said, it really, you know, there were campaigns that fought us. And even though they are required to do this under the law, there was a lot of dragging of feet; we would have to contact them over and over again to make sure that the documentation was being sent several times, you know, we had to use the Department of State as the intermediary, because they are the ones really who, in theory, are there to enforce this law, but really there's very little enforcement that can occur because of staffing and funding levels. So it was frustrating at times. But, you know, I have to say not every campaign was difficult to deal with. There were lawmakers who very readily turned over their information that we were asking for. And not only did they very readily do that, but they made pledges on the spot to be more transparent in the future about how they record expenses on their campaign finance reports.

Min Xian: If you're just joining us, we're talking with Angela Couloumbis and Brad Bumstead. They're part of an investigative reporting team that uncovered $3.5 million in obscure campaign spending by Pennsylvania State House and Senate candidates.

I think what you're describing is a kind of burden to access even though these campaign finance records are mandated by law to be accessible to the public. There's still a significant burden in terms of time and effort. Your reporting found that Senator Joe Scarnati has the highest amount of obscures spending in the legislature and it took six months like you described to get to those records when the law says it should have been 30 days, and I think that just illustrates the whole idea of how burdensome this could be. And, in addition, his campaign filed a lawsuit against you both and the Caucus in September for fees that are not allowed to be collected by law. I should say the lawsuit has been dropped by a judge recently; but, what was your reaction when you first heard about the lawsuit? Angela, do you want to go first?

Angela Couloumbis: I was stunned. I happen to actually be overseas visiting my parents when I was served at my home. Well, I wasn't served, my husband ended up receiving it, and it was shocking to hear that it had gone that far, because while we were reporting that story we had had multiple conversations, not just with the Scarnati campaign, but one of the lawyers who represents his campaign. And there had been documentation that was very direct and very clear from the state that the fees they were trying to charge us for were not permissible. So it stunned me to now see that we were being sued for unpaid fees, and that we were being named personally, both Brad and I, which, as you know, can be a big blow to one's personal credit. So, it was, it was surprising to me. And I think some of our editors also expressed this openly, they felt that it was really just a way to kind of discourage people from doing this kind of work, discouraging the public and other reporters from doing this kind of work.

Brad Bumstead: Like Angela, I was stunned. I was also surprised that it was just limited to Angela and I and the Caucus, and did not include other reporters involved on a story or Spotlight PA. And it was arbitrary in that sense, that was bothersome. And I don't know if-- why that was the case, but we can't deal with motives in all of this. We just know it was dismissed by a district judge in Jefferson County.

Min Xian: One of the things that kept me thinking about your reporting was the ambiguity lawmakers lean on when it comes to distinguishing between campaign and legislative business. There is an argument that the outcome of an election depends on how well a legislator does his or her job. Is that a valid point to you? And how does that kind of notion complicate the campaign finance matters, Brad?

Brad Bumstead: It's just, you know, that's the whole definition that they use for whether an expenditure is campaign related and can be charged to a campaign, that's whether it is in furtherance of an election. Well, you can make an argument that just about anything is in furtherance of elections, there have been legislators both in our study and in the past who have gone out and bought new suits to wear and when asked about it they would say, "Well, you know, I have to look good because I'm a candidate." We had a legislator who bought-- Chris Senado from Orange County-- bought two news sets of walking shoes every Fall. And I said, "Why are you charging these to your campaign?" He goes, "Because of all the knocking on doors I do," he said, "You know, I'm walking around all the time, so I need new shoes." So anything that can be remotely related to a campaign, even though there are many other uses, fits under the definition because it's just so vague.

Min Xian: What do you think, Angela?

Angela Couloumbis: Yeah, I agree with what Brad said. And I think that there's also a, not just sort of the distinction between taxpayer work, and political work, but there's also a fine line sometimes between a campaign expense for the furtherance of, of a campaign and a campaign expense that may be for personal use, right? And that came up, that question came up quite a bit in our reporting. And we frequently found ourselves questioning legislators whose accounts we were looking at and whose expenses we were examining, why something qualified as a campaign expense. But, fundamentally, it boils down to what Brad said: if you have a law that is so expansive and so broad, so as to encompass virtually anything, it is very difficult to rein in that type of spending. So if you want something more stringent, and if lawmakers feel that this is somehow out of control and needs to be reined in, they're going to have to actually change the laws to very distinctly lay out boundaries for what is acceptable and what isn't. And I can tell you, and Brad I'm sure can tell you the same thing, that having covered the legislature for now going on 14 years, the political will has not been there to do anything meaningful on campaign finance reform.

Brad Bumstead: There was a lawyer in Washington, DC with Common Cause, and we asked her, "What constitutes personal use?" And she said, "That a trip to Hawaii would be personal use." Well, we saw an instance where a group of legislators went to Europe for Oktoberfest and other events around Europe, and there's nothing that clearly said that was a personal use or illegal. So they said they were on a campaign, they were raising, trying to raise money for their campaigns over in Europe, well, that is illegal; you can't take money in a foreign country, but they never did, that we found out. So, if they were serious about it, they could, in two hours, pass a strong campaign finance bill; they all know how to do it, you know, what it needs, but they don't want to do it.

Min Xian: Were there are things that are truly surprising, unexpected when you were reporting on the project?

Angela Couloumbis: I think what surprised me really the most is not any one specific thing, but just sort of the overall picture. If you look at it, there's so much spending that goes on that the public doesn't see. And I was shocked by the sheer volume of that type of spending as a whole. And how, if you really are truly trying to, as a member of the public, track your legislator and his or her spending, you're so hamstrung, and you will never walk away from looking at their reports with a very complete picture.

Having said that, I think if I had to pick one thing out of everything that we found, this European-- this trip to Europe that Brad mentioned earlier that a couple of legislators went on, was really the most surprising to me, because you have to wonder, "What are you possibly doing overseas that could benefit your campaign?" And then we found out that, well, this was a trip with donors. But, you know, the campaign's never told us who the donors were. And so it kind of remained an entire mystery. And at that point, you have to wonder, "Okay, if you're going on a trip with donors, what are they paying for? Who are they? And what do they want from you?" And, as a member of the public, you would never know that, ever, looking at these campaign finance reports, and that's a scary thing to contemplate, especially when you're trying to assess who will be good on the job.

Min Xian: In reaction to the investigation, there has been a proposal in the General Assembly by Jay Costa for campaign finance reforms, but the people who can make these changes are the same people doing the obscure spending, like you mentioned. I think there's not a lot of political will to make these changes happen. So, what does that mean for the public if we ever want to see any kind of meaningful reform to the election law, to the campaign finance law in Pennsylvania?

Brad Bumstead: Well, there's only one pathway to meaningful reform of anything, and that is if lawmakers hear from their own constituents, I'm told if a House member who has fewer constituents gets independent calls from a dozen people, they take that real seriously. I'm not talking about postcards from a group that has, you know, sends them in with different names and people just sign them. But, you know, they got 8, 9, 10, 12, 15 people in their district saying, "Hey, what about 'this'? Will you look at 'this'?" They take that seriously because to get that many people to call, too many other people out there want that. But, you know, they're not hearing from people about it because, you know, it's just a really hard thing to get at, unless it's your day job, as my friend Mike Wereschagin, points out. You know, you just can't get at this stuff and see what's really going on with it, unless you have a lot of time to investigate it.

Angela Couloumbis: Yeah, I definitely agree with Brad, public pressure is really the, you know, the most effective way to get something done through the legislature. This is gonna sound somewhat jaded, and Brad, please, you know, tell me if you disagree. I also think the legislature sometimes reacts to scandals. If there were a big scandal involving campaign finance and Pennsylvania's laws surrounding campaign finance you might see that generated a lot of negative publicity for the legislature, I think you would potentially see more of an appetite to tackle this issue. But because, as we noted earlier, you know, the laws in Pennsylvania are so expansive and permissive, it's actually kind of difficult to bring successful campaign finance prosecutions.

Brad Bumstead: I agree with you a hundred percent. And it's a-- but it would have to be, you know, a massive scandal. And if that happened, in that case, it would be a lightning strike of reform in the state, you'd think, you know, people would be tripping over themselves to introduce campaign finance reform bills and to bring it to the floor and posture and get their name out there behind it. Yes, you bet. And our job is not to, you know, initiate the reform, but keep telling people what they're doing. And that's all we can really do.

Angela Couloumbis: It's a very difficult issue sometimes for people to wrap their heads around, because, you know, campaign finance reform is kind of a very-- it's a difficult issue to really get behind, given everything else that we're facing right now, right? You're thinking, you know, we're in the middle of a pandemic, but money in politics is incredibly important. And there is a role for that, and it's protected by the courts. But the issue is that, okay, if there's going to be money in politics, there should be a fundamental and strong level of transparency, because what you don't want is people in positions of power making decisions on behalf of people who have given secretly or doing things, you know, behind the scenes that you can't, as a member of the public, see. Because, then, the role of the legislator is not one to represent the public, the role of the legislator becomes one to represent his or her donors, and that is a fundamental blow to democracy. So, I know that sounds like really lofty, but it's true; you want transparency in government, and part of that is understanding who the special interests are and how much money they're giving.

Min Xian: Angela and Brad, thank you so much for joining us on Take Note.

Angela Couloumbis: Thank you.

Brad Bumstead: Thank you for having us.

Min Xian: Spotlight PA reporter, Angela Couloumbis, and Bureau Chief of The Caucus, Brad Bumsted, are part of an investigative reporting team that found State House and Senate candidates in Pennsylvania spent nearly $3.5 million in obscure campaign spending in recent years. You can listen to more Take Note interviews on wpsu.org/takenote. I'm Min Xian, WPSU.