Some claim per diem when campaign pays

MADISON -- Lawmakers have tapped their campaign accounts to pay for meals and hotels on days they also received payments from taxpayers for the same purposes.

MADISON -- Lawmakers have tapped their campaign accounts to pay for meals and hotels on days they also received payments from taxpayers for the same purposes.

Fifteen lawmakers took their per diem -- typically $88 a day intended to cover living expenses while working in Madison --on days they had also used campaign funds to pay some of those same expenses, a Journal Sentinel investigation found.

Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem, took a per diem on six days he had also used his campaign account for hotel rooms in Madison. After the Journal Sentinel asked about them, he said he would reimburse the state $528.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, Assembly Minority Leader Jim Kreuser, D-Kenosha, and Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, each spent hundreds of dollars on campaign meals over two years on the same days they claimed per diems.

Few rules govern the handling of legislative expenses, and there is virtually no oversight from regulators. Legislators say no law or rule was violated.


Most legislators say they don't see anything improper with claiming per diems and dipping into campaign accounts for the same costs, arguing that the per diem isn't enough to cover all of their Madison expenses. They also said campaign funds were used for political reasons.

While Huebsch returned per diem, Kreuser said he has changed the way he handles such situations.

The different reactions underscore the gray area of per diems, a system that leaves it up to legislators to say they were in the Capitol on official business on specific days.

The Journal Sentinel uncovered the double-dipping in a review of thousands of pages of campaign finance reports from 2005 and 2006. The paper built a database of expenditures for all 132 lawmakers that offers a first-of-its-kind look at how campaign money is spent in Wisconsin.

Campaign spending was checked against per diem records for that same time period. The review also showed that some legislators spent thousands of dollars in that election cycle on things that weren't tied to their elections. The line between personal and political expenses often is blurred.

A Racine lawmaker, for example, paid to attend a high school reunion in Mississippi with campaign funds -- 750 miles away from his district. Another from the Green Bay area repaid himself for bills dating back 13 years without having to provide receipts.

The use of campaign funds raises the question of whether lawmakers are spending political money to raise their standards of living, government watchdogs said.

Former Assembly Democratic majority leader and Gov. Tony Earl said the practice of claiming per diems and spending campaign funds violates the spirit of the per diem, intended to help defer expenses for lawmakers when they're in Madison.


"It's not supposed to be a situation where you never spend a nickel of your own money," Earl said.

Lawmakers are essentially capitalizing on the lack of guidelines, said former Elections Board administrator Gail Shea.

"That shows the extent to which they're trying to maximize their economic benefits from holding political office, and they use both the state and the campaign accounts to do that," Shea said.

The Journal Sentinel found there doesn't appear to be any widespread abuse of per diem, but there is typically no oversight of the system either. The Ethics Board defers to the clerks of each house. The clerks don't watch campaign finance reports, they said, and consequently couldn't identify cases of double-dipping.

Kevin Kennedy -- the head of the Elections Board, who was just named legal counsel of the new Government Accountability Board -- said overlap of per diem with campaign funds is not something Elections Board auditors would notice. More scrutiny is warranted, he said.

Legislators created the Government Accountability Board earlier this year to beef up enforcement of elections and ethics laws.

In Wisconsin, lawmakers earn the full per diem amount whether they spend an hour in Madison or all day. Those who live in Dane County receive $44 a day.

The tax-free perk adds thousands of dollars to lawmakers' $47,413 annual salaries. Lawmakers have not seen an increase in per diem rates since 2001.


Some legislators had only one or two cases in which they claimed a per diem and also spent campaign money to cover the same costs. In some cases, it was impossible to tell from records if there was double-dipping.

"I would think that the smarter politician would err on the side of not mixing the two," said Jay Heck of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a group that lobbies for ethics and election law reforms. "There are not a lot of normal citizens that have campaign accounts they can pay for expenses from."

Lawmakers said the allowance makes holding elected office affordable.

"I'm getting a per diem from the state because I live six hours away and I would be bankrupt if I wasn't compensated for working away from home," said Rep. Gary Sherman, D-Port Wing, who did not mix per diem with campaign spending.

Questionable uses

Huebsch -- who last session was preparing for the job of speaker -- spent nearly $213,000 during that period, more than any other Assembly candidate. Much of it went to developing strategy for Republican Assembly candidates and traveling to support those running for office.

Huebsch said his role as the Republican leader sometimes requires him to break from official duties for campaign-related lunches or meetings; he uses campaign funds for those.

Records also showed six campaign payments for hotel rooms in Madison on days when Huebsch was also in the Capitol on legislative business and claimed a per diem. Huebsch said a review of his records showed he stayed in the capital for campaign activities. He concluded that he shouldn't have claimed per diem and is reimbursing the state $88 for each of those six instances.


"I've tried to be meticulously careful about not taking per diem on days when I used hotels," he said. "I have no explanation other than I must have made a mistake and I need to reimburse the state."

Kreuser, the Assembly Democratic leader, also used his re-election fund for about a dozen campaign-related meals in Madison on days he was in the Capitol on official business.

Fitzgerald, the Senate Republican leader, said every legislator decides what to charge to their campaign on days they also claim per diems.

And it would be impossible to write a rule governing situations faced by legislators, Fitzgerald added. "Per diem is per diem," he said. "It's always going to be open to scrutiny."

Jauch used campaign funds for political expenses on several days, typically to buy a meal for others, he told the Telegram this morning. Per diem is supposed to cover meals and lodging on days legislators are in the Capitol, so using campaign funds to cover political meals, drinks or other costs on those days is appropriate, he said. He said the expenses were legitimate and used on a limited basis, amounting to about $200. They occurred on days when Jauch was working in his Madison office during the day and was working on his campaign in Madison or Superior in the evening. Campaign money, he said, was used to pay for meals for others or expenses for fundraising, not meals for himself typically.

"On one day my campaign incurred a $15 reimbursement for my campaign treasurer and me for a meal at a Douglas County party meeting in Superior," Jauch said. "I had spend the day in Madison, collected my per diem and returned to northern Wisconsin in the late afternoon to attend the meeting that night.

"You're entitled to both, and the rules are quite vague," Jauch said.

Rep. Pedro Colon, D-Milwaukee, spent about $800 on a day he accepted a per diem from taxpayers in November 2005 to buy dinner for Assembly Democrats at a strategy meeting.


"Our job is political in nature, and in order to have people talk to each other you have to sit them down in one place and talk," Colon said.

Highlighting the confusion over what's appropriate, Rep. Terry Musser, R-Black River Falls, returned $88 for a day when he'd hosted a fundraiser in his district after working in Madison.

Musser advises new legislators to not hold fund-raising events on days they claim per diem and said he was embarrassed when the newspaper found he had done that.

But others engage in such practices. For instance, Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, took a per diem for putting in a half day of work at the Capitol before going to a Republican fund-raiser and golf outing. Suder said the way he handled the situation was correct.

"If I had claimed per diem and simply had been all day at the event, that would be one thing," Suder said, adding that wasn't the case.

No uniform standards

Most legislators interviewed for this story saw nothing wrong with claiming per diem payments and tapping their campaign accounts on the same day.

The per diem form asks lawmakers to mark days they're in Madison on legislative business.


The statute says per diem is intended for a more specific purpose. Lawmakers "shall be entitled to an allowance for expenses incurred for food and lodging for each day that he or she is in Madison on legislative business," the statute says.

Huebsch said the statute isn't clear. He said he would consider a review of per diem and whether the rules need more clarity, but stressed the daily allowance doesn't always cover full expenses.

Rep. Phil Montgomery, R-Ashwaubenon, said it's difficult to keep expenses in Madison to $88 a day, making it necessary to use his campaign fund for political lunches and dinners.

At $88 a day, "of that, $62 goes to my hotel bill. If I have lunch, that's another $10. If I have dinner, it is generally a Domino's pizza, a bag of McDonald's (or), if my wife's talked to me first, it's a salad. And that gets you to $88. ... If somebody invites me to dinner at some place other than McDonald's and for the purpose of political discussion, that (campaign account) is where I'm going to pay it out of."

Kreuser said he had not thought about using per diem and campaign funds for the same expenses until the Journal Sentinel asked about it. He has not returned money but has since changed his personal policy. Now, he won't use campaign funds for his own meals on per diem days, but would still purchase them for others.

"If I'm getting paid for rooms and a meal, or meals, as part of my compensation, I shouldn't be taking that money and putting it in my pocket and having something else pay for it," Kreuser said.

'Political' open to debate

The questions surrounding per diem extend to what's considered legitimate campaign spending. Lawmakers spend thousands of dollars in each campaign cycle on things that aren't directly related to their elections.

Reporting practices vary widely, and some candidates' reports are vague. In one case, Rep. Frank Lasee, R-Bellevue, reimbursed himself $4,450 from his campaign for what he reported as bills dating as far back as 13 years. Rep Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, used campaign dollars to pay two parking tickets.

Lasee said the old bills were in a box and he decided last year to deal with them.

"Campaigns are time-intensive and exhausting ... you get done, you wrap up, you throw things together and you put them away," Lasee said of the old bills and expenses. He detailed the purposes, dates and costs of the expenses on his campaign finance report, but declined to show receipts to the Journal Sentinel.

Kennedy, the Elections Board director, said it's better to report expenditures when they occur. But he said the board would allow a candidate to clear up old expenses as it did with Lasee.

Zepnick said the parking tickets were incurred while doing political business. "It's just the cost of parking in downtown Milwaukee."

Kennedy said parking tickets are an allowable expense if they happen in the course of election-related work.

Rep. Bob Turner, D-Racine, used $85 in campaign funds to attend his 40th high school class reunion in Mississippi. Turner was invited to be a speaker at the reunion, and because he was appearing in his capacity as a legislator, used his campaign account to cover the registration costs. He paid about $380 in travel expenses himself.

-- Copyright © 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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