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The Investigator
Your exclusive guide to the best journalism in Pa.
October 24, 2019 | spotlightpa.org
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In this week's edition of The Investigator, we're giving you a complete guide to our investigation into how Pa. lawmakers hide millions of dollars in campaign expenses, plus five top takeaways for those of you who want the short version. And, as always, don't miss our newest Riddler puzzle. Happy Thursday.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"I don’t know why we’d have to get too specific. These aren’t tax dollars."

— Former Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks) in defense of Pa. lawmakers hiding millions of dollars in sometimes lavish campaign spending

The 5 biggest takeaways from our investigation into how lawmakers hide their campaign expenses

1. PUBLIC REPORTS ARE INCOMPLETE

Campaigns are required to file public reports detailing spending, but they are not required to itemize that spending, disclose the ultimate recipient or include receipts. As a result, many bundle expenses into a single credit card payment or a self-reimbursement, masking the true recipient of the money.

2. THE RULES FOR CAMPAIGNS ARE WEAK

Pennsylvania is the only state with neither a limit on how much money can be given to a campaign, nor an explicit ban or limit on lawmakers using that money for personal benefit. Under state law, campaign cash must be used for "influencing the outcome of an election." But in almost every case, politicians argue that expenses meet that definition, and there's no authority other than the courts or law enforcement to enforce the provision if they run afoul of it.

3. OVERSIGHT IS ALMOST NONEXISTENT

The Pennsylvania Department of State is responsible for overseeing campaigns. But just three people in the department keep track of roughly 3,000 registered campaign committees and upwards of 10,000 to 12,000 campaign finance filings in busy election years. Its power is “solely administrative,” with no authority to issue advisory opinions or impose fines beyond a $10-per-day late fee for reports.

4. THE PROCESS TO GET RECORDS IS LONG

There is a process for the public to request more detailed records of campaign spending, but it's not easy. First, a request must be made to the Department of State, which oversees campaigns. The department then makes a request to the campaign, which has 30 days to turn over the spending records. But there's no penalty if the campaign doesn't comply, or if it never kept the records at all.

5. CAMPAIGN SPENDING MATTERS A LOT

Pennsylvania state lawmakers earn a minimum of $88,000 a year, with leadership raking in as much as $135,000. Their campaign accounts give them access to tens of thousands — in some cases, even millions — of additional dollars. Following the money and how they spend it, and whom they spend it with, can shed light on how they use their influence and who has their ear.

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SUPPORT THE TRUTH
Your complete guide to our investigation

Tuesday » Lavish dinners, sports tickets, and nearly $3.5 million in other expenses by Pa. lawmakers you’ve never seen

Tuesday » Hours after investigation reveals millions in hidden campaign spending, Pa. lawmakers push for less oversight

Tuesday » How we uncovered nearly $3.5M in dark spending by Pa. lawmakers

Wednesday » Mystery trip to Europe with ‘donors’ by Pa. state senators followed expansion of wine law

Wednesday » Pa. lawmakers abruptly abandon attempt to limit public access to campaign expenses

Thursday » She’s paid by taxpayers. So why is top Pa. Senate aide wining and dining on a campaign credit card?

Coming Friday » The 10 most extravagant or bizarre expenses by Pa. state lawmakers’ campaigns

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Why the state has the second-highest rate of people under “correctional control” – in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.

 ASSOCIATED PRESS 

Pa. House wants to ban the public from seeing fire, rescue agency records despite government funding

Supporters say records requests are too burdensome on small departments. Critics say access ensures accountability.

» What happened to a trans inmate who said he was dehumanized at a Philly jail
» Top Philly doctors make huge sums — through Big Pharma consulting side gigs
» Pa. law has 5 times more crimes than in the ’70s — and 5 times more prisoners
» Court allows bankrupt Philly refiner to award secret bonuses
» GOP group behind Conor Lamb ads is at center of federal investigation
» Hunt for company to run Pa. lottery games continues to run up a big tab
THE RIDDLER

Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.
 
Fishy expenses (Case No. 7): A public campaign finance report listed seven expenses for a Sunday in October: A $49 breakfast with a donor, $87 for fancy sunglasses for the sunny day, $13 for stamps from the Post Office, a $75 gift card from CVS, $104 for happy hour, $248 for a dinner with another lawmaker and $38 for desserts from a bakery. Why were authorities suspicious of the spending?
 
Stumped? Get a hint.

Last week's answer: The cream was already in the coffee. Congrats to George S. who cracked the case and will receive some Spotlight PA swag.
» This week's Riddler hint: Days of the week
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