Political donations used for overseas travels

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Campaign money raised for local elections sometimes gets spent in unusual places -- like Europe.

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl each spent money meant for electioneering on trips to Europe last winter, according to campaign finance reports filed this month. Both traveled with their wives, and tapped the money provided by supporters to cover costs not picked up by organizations that paid for official parts of the trip.

The $1,033 spent on European travel by Mr. Onorato's campaign, and the $1,911 by Mr. Ravenstahl's political committee, were the farthest-flung expenditures reported from a year that saw many local officials deciding how to use campaign funds to go to events like the Democratic National Convention. The disclosures also come on the heels of Mr. Ravenstahl's and Mr. Onorato's use of campaign money to go to Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa.

To the mayor, tapping the campaign kitty is a way to keep taxpayers off the hook.

"When you look at my travel in terms of city taxpayer dollars, it is extremely minimal," he said. "In some cases I've decided to use campaign funds rather than city funds to do some traveling, because I think it's clean, it doesn't use taxpayer dollars.

"I think everything that we've done has been to promote me, to promote Pittsburgh and talk about upcoming campaign events or what we're trying to do in the city."

To some watchdogs, relying on private donors to fund travel that's not clearly election-related could be corrosive.

"You cannot allow campaign funds to be used as simply a supplement to your public compensation," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a nonprofit group pushing for election reforms. "It has the potential to create improper relationships with people who are going to ultimately want something from that public official."

Local campaigns are funded significantly by people who do business with government, and Pennsylvania is one of the few states with no ceiling on campaign contributions from individuals and political action committees.

Mr. Onorato's campaign, which spent $470,934 last year, reimbursed the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance $1,033 for expenses associated with his wife Shelly's presence on his January 2008 trip from Barcelona, Spain, to Amsterdam, Netherlands. The PRA paid Mr. Onorato's expenses on the trip, which coincided with a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra tour and was meant to spread the word about the city's 250th anniversary.

"A lot of the regional leaders took their spouses, and Dan felt it would be appropriate to bring his spouse," said Kevin Kinross, Mr. Onorato's political director. "Shelly was on that trip getting to know leaders and leaders' wives," which, he said, "was a way to advance Dan's electoral and political agenda."

Mr. Kinross also said it was a legitimate political expense for Mr. Onorato to attend the Super Bowl. Details of those expenses won't be filed until the end of the year.

"He just felt that it was an opportunity to raise his exposure," said Mr. Kinross. "There were a lot of Pittsburgh-area residents and leaders there."

Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign spent $272,400 last year, including $1,911 in the Netherlands and France. The January and February 2008 trip, undertaken with his wife, was otherwise covered by the PRA, the U.S. Embassy in Paris, the Greater Dunkirk Council and the French National Conference on Energy.

The mayor's campaign covered his $1,047 bill at the four-star New Hotel Roblin in Paris -- where rates range from $400 to $700 a night -- plus a night at Amsterdam's Japanese-themed Hotel Okura and restaurant tabs ranging from $22 to $253.

"Any time that you're advancing your efforts as the mayor to promote Pittsburgh and advance your own agenda to celebrate all of the wonderful things that we have here, I think it's an appropriate expenditure," said Mr. Ravenstahl.

State law allows campaign donations to be used "for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election," including payments for things of value or services, and donations to other campaigns. A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which regulates elections, said there's no specific regulation or court ruling governing travel.

There's "almost no limit on how you can use" campaign donations, said Lawrence Otter, a Doylestown-based elections attorney who practices statewide.

Politicians sometimes argue that an event like the Super Bowl is "a fundraiser," he said. "Was some public official gladhanding someone to hit them up for a campaign contribution?" he asked. If so, that might fit with state law.

"I can't imagine how going to the Netherlands influences the outcome of an election," said Mr. Kauffman.

Former Philadelphia Mayor John Street's use of $4,237 in campaign money to send his wife, son, sister-in-law and niece to Rome for the 2000 canonization of a local person got him a series of stories in the Philadelphia Daily News, but no discipline. Former state House Speaker John Perzel's use of campaign money to go to two Super Bowls with his son and a staffer also drew media attention, but nothing more. He remains a House member.

Mr. Ravenstahl spent $598.50 in campaign money on a room at the MGM Grand Hotel in Detroit during the Penguins' Stanley Cup Final stand against the Red Wings.

"I know all of my supporters that contribute to my campaign are supportive of our efforts," the mayor said. "So those are the folks that I have to answer to when it comes to my campaign contributions and what I decide to spend the money on."

The Department of State reviews campaign spending when it gets a complaint, but gets just a handful each year, and they are confidential. If the department detects violations, it turns them over to the local district attorney, or the attorney general.

City Councilman Patrick Dowd's campaign paid $1,584 for his flight to Denver and hotel bill for the Democratic National Convention in August. "It was, in fact, a good opportunity to network and meet political people," he said, adding that he traveled alone and paid for food with personal funds.

Council President Doug Shields, who went to the convention with his wife, split roughly $1,200 in convention-related spending between his campaign account and his personal account.

He also used the war chest to cover local parking tickets -- some of which he said were wrongly written while his car was parked in his free, official space next to the City-County Building. "I wouldn't be getting them if I wasn't a politician," he said.

County Councilman Jim Burn's campaign owes him $3,520 for expenses he covered on trips to the Democratic National Convention, the presidential inauguration and the Pennsylvania Society's meeting in New York, where state powerbrokers congregate annually and many politicians raise and spend campaign money. He said his campaign will eventually repay him.

"I discussed my candidacy for Allegheny County Council and folks either pledged their support or said they'd work with me," he said of his time at the events.

Mr. Onorato also paid Pennsylvania Society expenses and $3,515 in inauguration hotel and party costs with campaign funds.

City Councilman William Peduto spent $45 in campaign money in Chicago for a Democratic Leadership Council meeting, but didn't open the political checkbook on a trip to Turkey sponsored by the Pittsburgh Dialogue Foundation, nor one to Norway courtesy of Rotary International.

Mr. Dowd said he is applying to the European Union Visitors Program, which pays the expenses of "young, promising leaders," according to its Web site, to go for five- to eight-day sessions of meetings with EU officials. If accepted, he won't spend campaign money while there, he said.

"If I want to have a good Belgian beer," he said, "that doesn't count as political or governmental work."


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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