2nd senator tapped state account for campaign payment
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By JIM WALLS
Oct. 1, 2012 — Sen. Jack Murphy collected $5,000 in May from his legislative expense account for a constituent newsletter that his campaign paid for, state records show.
Murphy’s campaign reported paying $5,500 to The Stoneridge Group, a political consulting firm, on April 26 for a newsletter. Six days later, Murphy submitted Stoneridge’s April 26 invoice to the Legislative Fiscal Office and requested reimbursement. He received a check for $5,000 — all the funds that were left in his Senate expense account.
Murphy said Friday that the campaign discovered after the fact that it had “inadvertently” paid the invoice from Stoneridge. He said he reimbursed the $5,000 to his campaign account in July.
“It was just a full-circle thing,” he said.
Georgia law forbids legislators from paying for political newsletters with state money. It allows them up to $7,000 a year, though, to pay for printing, publications and other expenses.
“We are entitled to pay for [a constituent newsletter] however we want to pay for it,” Murphy said. “It doesn’t say anything about the campaign. I think mine just gave a breakdown of what happened during the session.”
When requesting state reimbursement for the newsletter, the senator signed a sworn, notarized statement that he had paid for it personally. Directly above that statement, in bold capital letters, the signed voucher states: “EXPENSES PAID WITH CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS CANNOT BE REIMBURSED FROM THIS ACCOUNT.”
Murphy is the second senator this year who was reimbursed with state funds for an expense paid by his campaign.
Atlanta Unfiltered reported Sept. 19 that Majority Leader Chip Rogers tapped his Senate expense account for $6,688 for the cost of mailing two newsletters that his campaign had paid for. Records show the Legislative Fiscal Office also reimbursed him in 2003 and 2005 for $1,471 in expenses paid by his campaign.
Doug Chalmers, a lawyer for Rogers’ campaign, said the newsletters were a legitimate public expense and that the reimbursements were proper. The campaign owed Rogers much more than that amount, Chalmers noted, from a 2004 personal loan.
Nevertheless, he said, Rogers wrote his campaign an $8,500 check after Atlanta Unfiltered’s report to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Senate expense accounts have not been audited as required by law for at least a decade, Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour has conceded. Balfour himself was fined $5,000 in August for filing incorrect claims for expenses.
The oversights, one ethics watchdog says, underscore the need for more scrutiny.
“It’s showing a disturbing trend of a lack of oversight in the process for some of the senators being reimbursed that is obviously not isolated to Senator Balfour’s ‘indiscretion,'” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.
“Senate leadership should come up with a plan to make sure this doesn’t continue to happen,” Perry said.
Georgia legislators operate under an honor system in determining what mailings qualify for state reimbursement. Members must sign a statement under oath that a newsletter was not political.
The joint Legislative Services Committee can investigate and order a member to pay the state back if it finds that a reimbursement was improper. Both Rogers, as majority leader, and Murphy, as Senate banking chairman, sit on the Legislative Services Committee.
Both senators were the beneficiaries this summer of controversial political mailings that were funded indirectly by the Senate Republican Caucus. The caucus earlier this year gave $140,000 to a newly created political committee that produced nearly identical mailings on behalf of eight Republican senators facing challengers in the party’s July 31 primary.
The Promotion PAC reportedly spent $33,000 on mailings for Rogers and $26,244 on those for Murphy. Pending ethics complaints allege that the committee’s expenditures were intended to circumvent campaign finance law, which limits spending that’s coordinated with a candidate’s re-election campaign to $2,500.
Brandon Beach and Steve Voshall, the candidates who lost to Rogers and Murphy in the July 31 Republican primary, have questioned why the incumbents’ campaigns hadn’t paid for those mailings. At the time, Rogers’ re-election account reported $294,000 cash on hand, and Murphy’s campaign $144,000. Before the primary, the challengers called on Rogers and Murphy to release bank statements showing they really had that much money in their campaign accounts.
Murphy said Friday he had no inkling about the Promotion PAC mailings beforehand.
“I didn’t know any mailings were being made on my behalf until they showed up,” Murphy said. “I had no idea about who paid for it or where it came from.”
Senate Republican leaders have said the plan had been discussed and approved unanimously at a September 2011 caucus get-together at Barnsley Gardens.
Murphy said that was news to him.
“I can’t recall anything at Barnsley Gardens where anybody said they were going to send out any mailers on behalf of anybody,” he said.