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Departments: Statistically Significant

What happens to unused campaign funds?

BY: Wilder Fleming and Jack Sullivan
Issue: Summer 2012


when elected officials leave office, they take a lot of things with them: memories, the appreciation of colleagues and constituents, and a pension if they served long enough. Some also leave with unused funds in their campaign accounts, money that can legally be spent however they wish as long as it satisfies the loose definition of furthering their political fortunes.

 
Former Senate president Robert Travaglini spent $43,000 in
campaign funds on his State House portrait.
A CommonWealth review of campaign finance records found former officeholders spending their unused campaign donations on a wide range of items and services, from cups of coffee and leased espresso machines to paintings, cars, cell phones, political contributions, and even holiday cash bonuses. The review examined reports from more than 100 people who have left office since 2002 and found the amounts left in campaign accounts ranged from a few hundred dollars to more than $800,000.

Former Senate president Robert Travaglini left office in March 2007 to become a high-powered lobbyist. In the weeks leading up to his retirement, he raised $23,641 in political donations, bringing his campaign account to more than $238,000. Over the next 21 months, Travaglini nearly emptied his account.

His biggest expenditure was $30,000 for an oil portrait of himself that now hangs in the Senate Reading Room at the State House alongside other former Senate presidents. In addition to the $30,000 payment for the painting itself, Travaglini used an additional $13,000 in campaign funds for the frame, an “unveiling fee,” and refreshments for the un­veiling event.

Travaglini spent more than $24,000 on food and beverages over the 21-month period. He donated $10,000 to East Boston Central Catholic School and another $10,000 to the now-defunct Dom Savio High School in East Boston, which closed in 2007. He paid $3,560 for tickets to a Senate holiday party at the Wang Center; $2,300 for tickets to the Boston Symphony Orchestra; and spent $3,500 on “gifts” from the Boston Winery. Travaglini did not return a call for comment.

State campaign finance officials say a former officeholder can continue to spend campaign funds if the spending enhances or benefits them politically if there is a chance they will return to the ballot. Many former officeholders continue to file campaign reports for years after they have stepped down, despite giving no other indication that they plan on running for office again. For an account to be formally dissolved, the residual money must be donated to the state, a municipality, a charity, or a scholarship fund. Former state senator Joan Menard of Somer­set, now an acting vice president at Bristol Com­munity College, sent a letter to the campaign finance office in November 2010, prior to her retirement in January 2011, saying she intended to keep her $156,000 account active “in the event that I might run for public office in the future.” In a number of interviews after she announced her retirement, however, the 76-year-old Menard said she had no plans to return to public office.

Among the more than $50,000 in campaign expenses from her first year of retirement, Men­ard, who earns $123,600 at the school, paid Barbara Laughlin of Rayn­ham $3,250 to prepare her campaign finance filings and ethics forms. She also gave Laughlin, who served as an aide in her Senate office, a $500 Christmas bonus. Menard could not be reached for comment.

Campaign finance law dictates that registered candidates may use campaign funds for legal defense purposes, but not for the payment of penalties or fines. Former House speaker Thomas Finneran, who was indicted by federal prosecutors on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2005, used $350,000 of his $805,000 campaign account to pay his defense lawyer, Richard Egbert.

Many ex-lawmakers donate generously to charity using the money supporters gave them. Former state senator Robert Havern left office in late 2007 with just over $105,000 in his campaign account. He has since given more than $78,000 to charity and scholarship funds. Others who donated a lot of their campaign cash to charity include former state representative Frank Hynes ($52,500), former state senator Cheryl Jacques ($60,000), Travaglini ($60,000), and Finneran ($28,000). Jacques gave $25,000 to the state Democratic Party, and Rachel Kaprielian, a former member of the House who was appointed Registrar of Motor Vehicles in 2008, gave the state committee $15,000.

Not everyone with a large sum goes on a spending spree. Former state senator Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge left office in mid-2007 with more than $540,000 in his account. Barrios, who briefly mounted a campaign for Middlesex district attorney and may have his eye on a possible run for attorney general in the future, still has a little more than $540,000 in his coffers after raising and spending a few thousand each ensuing year.

While there’s no such thing as a “typical” account, former state representative Michael Festa’s reports offer a good example of what former politicians do with unspent campaign funds. Festa, of Melrose, left the Legislature in the fall of 2007 to become secretary of elder affairs for Gov. Deval Patrick. At the time, he had roughly $50,000 in his campaign account. Over the next three years, Festa spent more than $11,000 on meals and just over $3,300 on a rented office coffee machine and supplies from Espresso, Etc. for his office staff at Elder Affairs. He also spent about $9,500 on lodging and $4,800 on airfare for events such as the American Bar Association convention and Council of State Governments conferences between 2007 and 2009. Two of those trips included stays at French­man’s Reef and Morning Star Marriot Beach Resort on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.

“Sometimes you go to Buffalo and sometimes you go to Pittsburgh,” says Festa. “I go wherever those conferences were.”

Festa left Elder Affairs in January 2009 and, by the end of that year, spent all of the $16,270 remaining in his account. Among his expenses were more than $1,200 on cell phone bills, $355 on a holiday dinner at Abe & Louie’s in the Back Bay, and more than $2,600 on travel to and lodging at conferences. On December 30, 2009, Festa donated the remaining $5,288 in his campaign account to the Carroll Center for the Blind, where he had served as president. Festa continues to file annual reports because of a $2,581 debt owed to a Marblehead charter boat company for a 1990 fundraiser. Festa said the bill was from his first unsuccessful run for office.

“I didn’t feel I had that obligation anymore,” Festa says when asked why he didn’t pay it before spending all his money. “The bill was incurred in 1990. Frankly, when you have a debt that you carry for that long a period of time, as a creditor, you look at it as uncollectable. I never felt I had to pay it.”

3 Article Comments

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Mayor Hawke
Says on 08.15.2012
at 4:17 PM
This came up in conversation just last week about Senator Kennedy's campaign warchest of about $5 million. I tried to check out the Federal database and I could only manage to see that his $5 million was spent down, mostly two years after his passing. I was not able to see where it went.
agingcynic
Says on 08.11.2012
at 2:25 PM
This retrospective information is interesting but how about current and future aspects? How many pols are planning to retire? How about those voted out in what looks to be a robust election? Is there a way to calculate the top 20 war chests of people about to enter the private sector, whether of their own volition or not?
PS- Mr. Festa: You're pretty cavalier about writing off debts. If you asked your clients at Elder Affairs what they considered to be the right thing to do, what do you think they would say? This is no way to disabuse people of their low opinions of public servants.
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