LANSING - In Michigan, as in most states, it's against the law for political officeholders to use their campaign funds to pay personal expenses.
But it's sometimes difficult — if not impossible — for the public or regulators to tell whether tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by individual politicians went to a legitimate purpose.
One reason is that some candidates and officeholders routinely use their campaign funds to pay off credit card balances but provide few details about what was charged to the cards. State and federal overseers largely rely on the honor system.
State Sen. Jim Marleau, R-Lake Orion, has used campaign donations to pay off credit card bills totaling more than $114,000 since 2011. More than $65,000 of those charges were not itemized. Even for charges that were itemized, Marleau, in many cases, provided only one-word categories to describe the purpose of the expenditure, such as "supplies."
Marleau, who is his own campaign treasurer and declined repeated requests from the Free Press to answer questions about his spending, shone a rare light on lawmakers' use of credit cards earlier this year when he responded to questions from state election officials about his high volume of un-itemized expenses by sending in annotated copies of 12 of his 2016 credit card statements from Bank of America and US Bank.
The statements, which represent only about $6,400, or less than 6% of the credit card charges Marleau has paid from his campaign fund since 2011, satisfied Michigan election officials but raised new questions, showing charges that included clothing bought at Kohl's, fuel purchases on the same day he sought Senate reimbursements for a trip to Lansing, cable and Internet charges, a purchase from the Home Shopping Network, and more than $1,000 in fast food restaurant purchases described as meeting expenses.
Among Michigan state lawmakers, Marleau is on the extreme when it comes to charging un-itemized credit card charges to his campaign fund, but he is not alone.
In 2014, when he ran unsuccessfully for the state House in Kalkaska County in northern Michigan, former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson charged three American Express bills totaling $6,822 to his campaign committee, with no further details. Challenged by state election officials, Johnson filed an amended report that described the charges only as “travel expenses.” No further itemization was demanded, or provided.
Similar issues arise with federal funds. Gov. Rick Snyder has charged more than $266,000 in credit card bills to his "527" account — a federal nonprofit largely funded by corporate donors that Snyder uses to cover officeholder expenses — since he became governor in 2011. In reports filed for public inspection, Snyder, a Republican, described each of his 73 monthly payments of credit card bills as "expenses associated with travel, meals, telecommunications, equipment rental, supplies and postage," or some multipurpose subset of that group, but gave no other details.
The issue is not new, but the state, which also oversees campaign finance reporting by local officials, has failed to enact more stringent requirements, as are found in some other states.
The late Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara — a Democratic power broker and old-style political boss — used his campaign fund to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year in un-itemized credit card charges, which he lumped under the heading "meeting expenses."
In 2000 and 2001 alone, McNamara's credit card charges totaled $92,735. A spokeswoman for the Michigan Secretary of State's Office said in 2002 that such loose reporting was an apparent violation of state campaign finance laws, but officials would only investigate if they received a complaint, which they hadn't.
Across the country, the practice of using political funds to pay off significant amounts in un-itemized credit charges has stirred controversies and investigations.
A California congressman repaid $60,000 last year after credit card charges paid by his campaign fund were challenged as expenses that benefited him personally. The credit card issue has also stirred controversy in New York, Illinois and Mississippi.
In Michigan, four of Marleau’s Senate colleagues, all Republicans, also included credit card charges on their July campaign finance reports, but none reported significant charges that were not itemized. Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, paid credit card bills totaling nearly $2,717 over his last two reports, but itemized every single charge, even a $3.81 purchase at Menard's.
National experts on campaign finance say that until recently, most scrutiny by watchdog groups has focused on the money politicians collect — and who gave it — much more than on how it gets spent. But that is changing.
The credit card issue "is certainly on our radar," said Stephen Spaulding, an attorney and chief of strategy with the citizen watchdog group Common Cause in Washington, D.C.
The organization favors detailed reporting requirements for expenditures to "err on the side of transparency so voters can follow the money."
At the National Institute on Money in State Politics, executive director Edwin Bender said lax laws combined with uneven enforcement can leave the public unclear on whether politicians are spending money to benefit their campaigns, or themselves.
"Any time there is an opportunity to fudge, there should always be someone looking over their shoulders," Bender said. "Lawmakers need to be responsive to the people who elected them, and if it looks like they are enriching themselves personally, that kind of fouls the whole basket of apples."
Michigan requires state candidates and officeholders to itemize all expenditures above $50, but that's not always enforced. It's OK for lawmakers to charge personal and campaign expenses to the same credit card, so long as the personal expenses are paid separately.
Under federal law, funds such as Snyder's created under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code are supposed to itemize expenditures above $500, but officials have not challenged reports that don't detail the actual credit card charges.
Bettina Inclan-Agen, a spokeswoman for Snyder's political funds, declined a request to release the credit card statements behind the expenses, but said Snyder goes "above and beyond what is required by law to provide additional transparency to all Michigan voters."
In addition to being barred from paying for personal expenses, term-limited lawmakers, such as Marleau, can't use the funds for campaign-related expenses, such as advertising, either. What can be charged is costs "incidental to holding office," such as meals or travel for state business, or the cost of tickets to charitable events.
Marleau, who, in addition to his $71,685 Senate salary, receives from taxpayers $900 per month to cover lodging, meals and miscellaneous expenses, plus certain mileage payments, used a personal credit card in 2016 to purchase shirts that cost $138 at Kohl's department store in his hometown of Lake Orion.
He charged the purchase to his campaign fund, listing the expenditure as "supplies" on a campaign finance report.
Months later, when challenged by state election officials about thousands of dollars in unitemized credit card charges, Marleau provided more detail, saying the supplies he bought that day were shirts in "campaign yellow."
But Marleau, who is serving his second and final four-year term in the Senate, has no pending Senate campaign, under Michigan term limits.
Still, Marleau's description of the expense as campaign-related raised no red flags for Michigan election officials. Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office, said "nothing reported is inconsistent with state law on its face." The shirts could be considered an incidental expense, if, for example, they were used to identify Marleau staffers at a political event, so constituents could ask them questions, he said.
Woodhams didn't respond in detail to all questionable expenditures identified by the Free Press, but said none of them raised red flags on their face, and anyone is free to file a complaint and request an investigation if they have concerns.
Marleau identified certain personal charges and made sure they did not get charged to his campaign fund. Of the 256 charges totaling $7,388 covered by the bank credit card statements he forwarded to election officials, Marleau identified four charges totaling $990 as ones he paid personally.
But government ethics experts say that by mixing personal and officeholder charges on the same cards, Marleau increases the risk for error. In fact, one of the two personal cards Marleau uses with his campaign fund includes his wife as an authorized user.
Some states regulate the use of credit cards and reporting of expenditures more closely than Michigan.
Under California law, candidates can't use the same credit card to mix personal and campaign expenses.
In Ohio, any expenditure higher than $25 must be supported by a receipt or a canceled check showing the purpose of the purchase.
Credit card charges itemized in the invoices Marleau made public included:
- Besides the campaign shirts, $146 in other expenses Marleau described as campaign-related when he had no campaign pending — vehicle registration for his "campaign auto" and dry cleaning for campaign clothing.
- An $84.75 purchase, on a Saturday, two weeks before Christmas, from the Home Shopping Network. The explanation Marleau wrote on his credit card statement is illegible.
- Internet and cable charges of $337 from Comcast. Senators get free Internet and are not billed by cable providers at the Senate Office Building in Lansing, and Marleau has no district office.
- About $1,100 in fuel purchases for Marleau, who in 2016 could charge 54 cents per mile for one round trip per week from Lake Orion to Lansing, and received at least $3,496 in Senate mileage compensation. On seven occasions during the limited period covered by the credit card statements, Marleau charged to his campaign account fill-ups near his Lake Orion home or in Lansing on the same day that he requested and received Senate compensation for a Lansing return trip, records show.
- Fifteen purchases at various fast food restaurant chains that each totaled $25 exactly. Marleau described each of the charges as a "meeting" expense and did not respond to an e-mail asking whether they represented gift card purchases.
- Restaurant expenses totaling $1,858, mostly near Marleau's home and described as meeting expenses. They included $443 spent at McDonald's, $248 at Wendy's, $126 at Culver's, $86 at Applebee's, and $78 at A&W.
- Fourteen meeting expenses charged to Marleau's credit card for less than $3 each, with the smallest meeting charge being $1.11 at a McDonald's in Auburn Hills. and 39 meeting charges for less than $10 each. Marleau did not respond to an e-mail seeking to clarify whether all of these small purchases arose from actual meetings.
- Repeated purchases from the same vendor that state officials say should have been itemized despite the fact each was below $50. That's because once a series of small purchases from any one vendor add up to more than $50 during one reporting period, they all must be itemized. For example, in February 2016, Marleau should have reported a series of four fuel purchases at Sam's Club — each below $50 — because they added up to $72. Instead of requiring Marleau to fill out an amended campaign finance report, as is normal for errors or omissions by candidates, the state accepted the credit card statements Marleau submitted and dropped the matter.
Marleau told the Free Press on Oct. 17 he would sit down that week to discuss the credit card charges and instructed staffer David Jessup to schedule an appointment. Despite repeated requests, Jessup said Marleau didn't have time for a meeting or a phone call, and Marleau declined to answer questions when approached outside the Capitol on Oct. 19. He also did not respond to a list of questions e-mailed that day to both he and Jessup.
Marleau did provide more itemization of his credit card charges on his latest report, filed Wednesday, after the state and the Free Press raised issues about his practices, even itemizing 20 credit card purchases that were below $50. But he still reported $588 in un-itemized purchases.
The issue of credit card expenses not being itemized has been contentious in other states as well.
In Mississippi, candidates and officeholders must itemize expenses of more than $200. "But many politicians just list lump-sum payments to a credit card or themselves with no detail of the spending," the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson reported last year.
In New York State, a 2015 review by the Associated Press found that un-itemized credit card charges were routinely some of the largest expenditures listed on state candidates' campaign finance reports.
In Alabama, candidates and officeholders must itemize charges greater than $100, prompting Alabama.com columnist Kyle Whitmire to write last year that "some Alabama elected officials are hiding expenditures by charging expenses to credit cards and then reporting only the credit card payments on their campaign finance reports, not what they bought with those cards."
In 2013, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Chicago, acknowledged that a state committee he formed in 2010 to back his mayoral bid failed to properly disclose about $17,000 in credit card charges, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Candidates and officeholders are also not allowed to charge personal expenses to their campaign funds under federal campaign finance law.
In 2016, U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from San Diego County, repaid $60,000 in charges paid from his campaign fund, including $1,400 to a dentist, $434 to Dick's Sporting Goods, $206 to sportswear retailer North Face, and $111 to Nail Spa Plus, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Hunter told the newspaper that some of the charges were mix-ups based on the color of his credit cards.
Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said officeholders have an obligation to be transparent about how they spend their campaign funds, regardless of specific legal requirements.
"When I talk to officeholders about this stuff, they often say: 'If my constituents don't like what I'm doing, they can vote me out,' " Mauger said.
However, "the public is handcuffed from being able to get the information required to judge what is going on."
Lawmaker credit card purchases
Sen. Jim Marleau, R-Lake Orion, has used his campaign fund to pay off about $114,000 in credit card bills since 2011,, of which more than $65,000 was un-itemized. Marleau sent state election officials 12 credit card statements, representing less than 6% of the total amount he charged, after they questioned him about un-itemized expenditures. Here is how those 252 charges from part of 2016 broke down:
Restaurant $1,858 29%
Retail $1,504 24%
Fuel/Transportation $1,369 21%
Office supplies $484 8%
Hotel $444 7%
Cable/Internet $337 5%
Storage $180 3%
Communications $164 2%
Other $58 1%
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