ALBANY, N.Y. - New York state lawmakers and candidates have used campaign donations to pay for car repairs, gasoline, events at polo clubs, criminal defense attorneys and hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card bills, many of them un-itemized, an Associated Press review of 10 years of campaign finance reports found.
Determining precisely how much was spent for what is nearly impossible because the state's weak campaign finance laws allow lawmakers to pay bills using campaign donations without disclosing the details. And even when lawmakers do submit the information, it can be onerous for a member of the public to get it because of how the state makes it available.
"The laws are abysmal," said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the League of Women Voters of New York State. "They're so gray and opaque that you can practically use campaign funds as a personal slush fund, and many lawmakers have."
Un-itemized credit card bills are routinely some of the largest expenses listed on a candidate's campaign finance reports. The AP found candidates for the New York state Assembly racked up more than $1.6 million in supposedly campaign-related expenses on American Express cards alone in the past decade, more than 5,000 payments in all.
In some cases lawmakers attached lists of what the credit cards were used for; in most cases they do not. Even if such details are included, the process for finding them can be a trial.
Sen. John Flanagan, the Long Island Republican who took control of the Senate following the arrest of his predecessor on corruption charges, charged more than $90,000 to his American Express card in the past decade, the AP found.
More than two-thirds of the bills were listed as "other" in the area on the report in which lawmakers describe the expenses, a common practice of many lawmakers. But Flanagan spokesman Scott Reif said the campaign routinely submits the specific charges to the state Board of Elections.
Such details, however, can be difficult to find on the state's campaign finance website. For example, a member of the public would have to track individual check numbers used for credit card bills to understand what charges were made.
Lawmakers also receive reimbursements for their travel to Albany, but many still use campaign funds to cover the cost of gasoline and auto expenses. That includes Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, who received more than $23,000 in travel and accommodation reimbursements for legislative business in 2014. His campaign has also spent more than $22,000 at a mechanic in the Bronx.
Heastie's travel reimbursements reflect the amount of time he spends in Albany and his practice of traveling to Albany the night before a legislative day, according to his spokesman Michael Whyland. Heastie has also consulted the state's Board of Elections to ensure his auto bills were a legitimate use of campaign money.
"He's very careful," said Whyland, who noted that many lawmakers have similar vehicle expenses.
New York has long had a prohibition on using campaign funds for personal expenses. Until recently, however, it was up to lawmakers to decide whether an expense was related to their campaign or their work as an elected official, and some took an expansive view. Over the years, the state's Board of Elections has given lawmakers permission to use campaign funds to pay for babysitters and official portraits of office holders.
Former Senate Leader Joseph Bruno, who once used campaign money to purchase a $1,000 cover for his indoor pool, used more than $1 million in campaign funds to pay defense lawyers after he was charged with taking bribes. The Rensselaer County Republican, who is no longer in the Legislature, was acquitted and is seeking reimbursement from the state for his legal bills; $1.8 million in payments have been approved.
Nassau County's Acting District Attorney Madeline Singas said last week that her office is investigating every lawmaker in her county for "anomalies" in their travel records.
Singas' comments came following a WNBC report that her office was investigating longtime Sen. Carl Marcellino for allegedly billing taxpayers and his campaign for the same vehicle expenses. The WNBC report, citing campaign finance records, said Marcellino spent more than $20,000 of his campaign funds on automobile expenses from 2010 to 2013. The report added that the state reimbursed the Long Island Republican for $18,500 during the same period.
Marcellino has not been charged with wrongdoing. "He is confident that he has followed all laws and appropriate guidelines," spokeswoman Kathy Wilson said.
Expense reimbursements are drawing similar scrutiny in Albany.
Last month, longtime Queens Assemblyman William Scarborough, a Democrat, pleaded guilty to theft and fraud, admitting he submitted at least $40,000 in false expense vouchers for per diem expenses when he didn't travel to Albany during the period from 2009 to 2012. In a letter of apology, he said he took advantage of a travel system where legislators were reimbursed when they said they were in Albany "basically with no questions asked."
Lawmakers recently adopted new rules for expense reimbursements to make it more difficult for lawmakers to fraudulently claim repayments. It was part of a series of new rules enacted following a wave of corruption investigations targeting lawmakers that also included new rules on the personal use of campaign money.
"Personal use of campaign funds has become another way to supplement income," Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in February when he called for new regulations. "This is wrong and it must stop this session."
Lawmakers watered down Cuomo's original proposal. The new rules do restrict the use of campaign funds to pay for child care, but lawmakers could still use their campaign cash to pay for country club events or sporting events if they are tied to a specific fundraiser.