Senate Republicans stop bill that would ban personal use of campaign money

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Banning personal use of campaign funds is a legislative priority of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and was part of the integrity agenda last year of GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie.

Republicans on a Senate committee on Tuesday sunk a bill to do just that — a bill sponsored by one of their own.

Virginia law allows a legislator to use campaign money for anything, except when closing out a campaign committee. Some lawmakers have reported expenditures on meals, gasoline or fancy hotel rooms, raising questions about whether the expenses are truly campaign-related.

Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, filed Senate Bill 592 to prohibit personal use of campaign money.

“I think just frankly as an ethics matter that we owe it to the commonwealth of Virginia constituents that we represent, most especially to the donors who contribute to our campaigns, to say, ‘That’s the law in Virginia and we certainly abide by that law,’” she told members of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, of which she is the chair.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, wanted the committee to approve the bill, but Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, made a motion to kill it for the year and send it to the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council to be studied.

“We mentioned this and ethics all in the same sentence,” Cosgrove said. “It would be my recommendation because of what we went through when we did ethics reform — and it was kind of ugly there for a while — that this bill be referred to the ethics committee so it gels with everything that goes on here.”

Cosgrove was referring to changes made by the legislature in 2015 in response to the gift scandal involving former Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The committee voted 8-4 against Vogel’s bill.

Senators voting to stop the bill: Cosgrove; Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania; Ben Chafin, R-Russell; Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach; Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield; Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg; Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake; and Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg.

Senators voting to ban personal use of campaign money: Vogel; Deeds; Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria; and Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg.

Any review by the state’s ethics council will not be the first time state government has studied the issue.

The Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government, a bipartisan study group established early in the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, studied the issue and in December 2015 issued a report that called on lawmakers to prohibit personal use of campaign money.

Bills to ban personal use of campaign money remain alive in the House of Delegates. They are sponsored by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, and Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania.