George Santos controversy spurs calls for campaign finance reform in Virginia
New York Congressman George Santos was expelled from the House of Representatives and faces federal indictment. But Virginia legislators noted some of the campaign spending crimes he’s accused of are legal in the Commonwealth.
A report from the Congressional Committee on Ethics found Santos used campaign funds for expenses like Botox, designer shoes, and even subscriptions to the porn website OnlyFans. But after the report was released Virginia Democratic Delegate Marcus Simon was quick to point something out: similar personal use of campaign funds by elected officials isn’t illegal under state law.
“You have people who buy stuff with their credit card and put on their campaign finance report ‘Visa bill,’" Simon said. "Okay what did you use that Visa bill to buy?”
According to a 2015 report requested by then-governor Terry McAuliffe, Virginia is one of three states that permits the personal use of campaign funds. The report included recommended fixes in line with what Simon and others have proposed in the past: bring the state in line with federal election laws.
“If the expense would exist even in the absence of the candidacy or even if the officeholder were not in office, then the personal use ban applies,” reads the Federal Election Commission’s guidance on the issue.
Notably, Virginia is the home of the first campaign finance law.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, George Washington had bought barrels of hard cider for some of his friends, and soon after the House of Burgess passed a law prohibiting candidates from giving voters refreshments or gifts.
UVA Law professor Bertrall Ross said it would take until the Gilded Age for campaign finance reform to enter the broader political sphere. Back then, with wealth consolidated to a select few, it became clear the opportunity to bribe officials via gifts or money was a problem.
“It’s a concern about distortion and corruption in politics, currying favor with candidates and elected officials,” Ross said. And while political officials pushed back at first, promising their own integrity would avoid influence, the opportunity for abuse was too clear.
“It was much more than a barrel of hard cider,” he said. “It meant protecting these people’s empires, or even advancing and promoting them.”
Scandals emerged, concerns were expressed, and the first campaign laws were enacted in the 19th century. From there things expanded slowly, and it wasn’t until President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, and the discovery of books of previously undisclosed donations, that lead to the reporting and donation standards we’re familiar with today.
The new regime led to the creation of the FEC as a disclosure database while the Department of Justice was empowered to enforce limits defined by congress.
And wile those rules apply to federal officials, states started to enact their own reforms around the same time, usually based on federal efforts.
“The idea that this money should be part of your personal piggy bank, that you could use in any way you want to, that was seen as beyond the pale,” Ross said.
But efforts to change the law in Virginia have failed for as long as reforms have been sought. In the last two years, Republicans killed similar bills. While Democratic Senator Jennifer Boysko begged for a different outcome on her effort in 2023, Republican Delegate Wren Williams pointed out no action was taken when those on the left had control of both chambers and the governor’s mansion the years earlier.
Simon and Republican former Delegate Greg Habeeb both said their efforts to address the issue years earlier were turned into Swiss cheese. Enough exceptions were carved out that the proposals lost teeth and were killed.
“It wasn’t because of the George Santos’s of the world wanting to abuse the system, it was new elected officials saying I get paid so little in Virginia, if I’m not able to supplement my efforts with campaign funds, whether it's childcare, clothing or transportation, I can’t do the job,” Habeeb said, pointing to the $30,000 stipend elected officials are given for their part-time legislator gigs.
“Virginia was always less rules, more disclosure,” he added.
Simon acknowledged the disclosure rules as well. He said campaign spending reports can be fodder on the campaign trail, with candidates claiming funds were being abused even if they’re not illegal.
But that goes back to the “Visa bill” reporting; the state’s vague requirements don’t help, Ross argues.
"Our system lacks transparency. And that lack of transparency makes it difficult to judge the behavior of the candidate they are supporting,” he said.
But if Virginia did decide to change the law, Simon suggested the state's Board of Elections take on the enforcement role. And while he admitted the lopsided nature of that agency could leave room for abuse, he has a fix for that too.
“Everybody has to agree," he said. "It has to be almost Santos level before any enforcement could kick in.”
No bill addressing the issue has been filed yet. The 2024 Session starts next month.