Super Bowl tickets. A trip to Paris. Parties for coworkers. Country-club dues.
These items weren't culled from the expense reports of a Wall Street exec, or the income-tax deductions of an aspiring socialite. They're expenses incurred by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and other local officials ... and paid for by the political committees seeking to keep them in office.
Reporters routinely sift through campaign-finance reports to find out who bankrolls political candidates. And reformers, seeking to clean up politics, often propose caps on the contributions those candidates can accept.
But sometimes, there's a story not just in where the money is coming from, but in where it is going.
Pennsylvania law specifies that when money is contributed to a campaign, it can be used only "for the purposes of influencing the outcome of an election." But when City Paper recently reviewed the expenditures made by city elected officials, it uncovered a number of transactions whose connection to campaigning are, at least at first blush, hard to gauge.
Mayor Ravenstahl's campaign, for example, has spent thousands of dollars on country-club dues, along with trips to the Super Bowl and Paris. Records suggest that Pittsburgh City Councilor Ricky Burgess borrowed money from his own campaign, while his colleagues have spent money feting council employees.
Such activities rarely raise red flags, in part because elections officials give broad leeway to the sort of activity that is allowed. But without limitations on how campaign funds can be spent, good-government watchdogs say, there'd be little difference between making a contribution to a political campaign, and just handing over cash for politicians to spend any way they like.
"Election code prohibits the use of campaign money for anything other than influencing the outcome of an election," says Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a Harrisburg-based government watchdog group. "Campaign accounts should not be used as slush funds to enhance a politician's personal lifestyle."
As most Pittsburghers are painfully aware, the Steelers lost to the Green Bay Packers in last year's Super Bowl, which was played in Fort Worth, Texas. On hand to watch the game was Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, whose campaign recorded a $5,066 payment to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a "Super Bowl Trip" on Feb. 28. The campaign's expense reports also list "Travel" expenditures of $5,970.80, paid to Embassy Suites in Fort Worth.
In 2011, Ravenstahl's campaign also paid a total of $3,154.24 in monthly dues to Rivers Club, a private Downtown business and sports club, and $4,156.77 in dues to Shannopin Country Club, a golf club located in Ben Avon Heights.
The end of the mayor's 2011 report lists another "Travel" expense: $2,275.19 to The Benjamin, a luxury hotel in New York City.
When CP asked about those expenditures in an emailed list of questions, the Ravenstahl campaign issued a statement attributed to the mayor:
"Each and every question you asked regarding campaign expenditures has one consistent defining criterion: [T]hey all involve allowable expenditures of campaign funds. Whether raising campaign donations or building political support, travel, venues, campaign staff and professionals are involved. My campaign expense reports detail this in their required specificity. Our expenditures and activities are fully appropriate. They are publicly disclosed and reported consistent with all governing laws."
Ravenstahl's 2011 expenses came in a non-election year. The mayor last campaigned to keep his job in 2009, and has announced his intention to run for another term next year. But political watchdogs agree that the expenditures may well be permitted.
A trip to the Super Bowl, for example, could offer a chance to mingle with well-heeled corporate executives, leading to campaign contributions down the road. Still, Kauffman says, while "[y]ou could make an argument" that those expenses are legitimate, "it's a difficult argument to make. It sounds like those are personal expenses."
"He's taking money from people to subsidize a lavish lifestyle," adds Tim Potts, president of political-reform group Democracy Rising. Potts calls the Super Bowl and travel expenditures "absolutely troubling."
A review of other campaign expenditures suggests that few elected officials have relied on campaign committees to bankroll trips. More common are contributions to community groups in their district: City Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith, for example, donated small amounts to groups including a senior center in Sheraden, and a community-development group in Mount Washington. Natalia Rudiak's campaign, similarly, has given money to groups in her South Hills district, like the Carrick Community Athletic Association.
"You can get anything under the edge of that [legal] tent," says Potts: Gifts to community groups, for example, can be justified as "public relations" with the voters.
Still, some expenditures do stand out. Among them are a handful of transactions made by City Councilor Ricky Burgess in 2010.
On Jan. 11 of that year, Burgess' campaign-finance reports record a $6,000 "loan" from the campaign committee, Friends of Ricky Burgess, to Burgess himself. The reports show that Burgess repaid that money just eight days later, on Jan. 19. But in July, the reports show another loan to Burgess, of $520, with another $600 loaned in October. And unlike the January withdrawal, the expense reports do not show the other 2010 payments to Burgess being fully repaid. The reports reflect an undated $300 "refund of loan" from Burgess back to his campaign, though that would still seem to leave $820 in outstanding debt.
Loans made from candidates to their campaigns are not unusual; campaigns are often financed out of a candidate's own pocket, especially early on, and then repaid when the coffers are filled. (Burgess' wife, Carlotta, had loaned money to the campaign in earlier years, and wasn't fully repaid until 2010.) But for a campaign to loan money to a politician "could be problematic," says Kauffman of Common Cause. "There are potential legal problems there."
"A loan to a candidate from their committee is something that is not in the norm," says City Controller Michael Lamb, whose office tracks contribution data for city officials. "That's not to say it's not legal," he adds: Everything would depend on how the money was actually used.
Burgess, who became the chair of council's finance committee earlier this year, largely declined to discuss that question on the record. In a statement, he noted that "all of the loans at issue were disclosed on my Campaign Expense Reports. The loan for $6,000 was repaid within eight days." As for the apparent $820 balance from the July and October disbursements, he ascribed it to "a matter of inadvertence."
"I believed that entire balance was repaid in 2010," he wrote. Burgess also pointed to $2,500 he gave to his campaign in February 2011. "Had I realized that I still owed my committee $820," he wrote, "I would have notated that differently," to reflect that of that money, "$820 was repaid" from 2010.
In any case, the statement continues, "[A]ll transactions were fully reported," and "I accumulated numerous out-of-pocket expenses" while running for office. Campaigns often reimburse candidates and staffers for day-to-day election expenses, from postage to gas; Burgess' statement asserts that in his case, those expenses "far exceed the loan balance in question from 2010."
"Nevertheless, out of an abundance of caution," the statement concludes, "I have made a contribution of $820 to my campaign committee to fully resolve the matter."
Given how loosely campaign-finance expenditures are interpreted, questions about where a politician's personal finances end, and his campaign's finances begin, may seem abstract.
"That's why the law has to be much more strict as to what's allowable for expenditures," say Potts, of Democracy Rising.
Other city officials, after all, have used campaign money to help pay for office holiday parties. Last January, for example, Lamb's own campaign committee paid $636 to Primo Cucina Italiana, logging the expense as "Controller's Office Holiday Party." Several city councilors similarly helped pay for a holiday party among council staffers.
Of course, city taxpayers didn't have to pay a thing, and may even have benefited from improved morale. Sometimes, the city cashes in from even more eyebrow-raising expenditures. The campaign of former city councilor Doug Shields, for example, once dug deep to pay a $192 parking ticket, back in 2008.
"I would presume it was a ticket someone from the campaign got," says Shields, who left office late last year.
And then he joked, "You didn't find [the records for] the Jacuzzi?"