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5:17 AM Sun, Nov. 18th

Some Clean Elections money went to laptops, hiring relatives

PHOENIX - Some of the 107 candidates who received public money to run for state Legislature this year bought computers, cameras and printers that are theirs to keep and paid relatives as campaign workers and consultants, a Cronkite News Service review found.

Reports accounting for the $3.2 million legislative candidates received from the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission also included $60 for National Rifle Association dues, $650 to have mariachis perform and $229.87 for a "post-debate discussion" with campaign staffers at T.G.I. Friday's.

Publicly financed candidates are required to justify campaign expenses as legitimate. But there's little within the rules established by the Clean Elections Commission, which oversees the program, dictating what is and isn't an acceptable expenditure.

"You think about it being done largely to afford advertisements and signs, things that are specific to a campaign, not things you'd use for the rest of your life necessarily," said David Berman, a research fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy. "I think we need some parameters on this," he said. "People would be free to buy snowmobiles and canine outfits the way the law is written - whatever comes to their mind."

Todd Lang, executive director of the Clean Elections Commission, said the commission doesn't subscribe to the philosophy of micromanaging campaigns. But he said there is a tension between not wanting to interfere and keeping in mind that candidates are spending public money. "There are occasions when people buy something we would not prefer, but ultimately, it's up to the campaigns," he said.

Arizona voters created the public financing system by narrowly approving a referendum in 1998. The proposal followed AzScam, a pay-to-play sting that led to 10 percent of the Legislature resigning. The bulk of the money comes from a surcharge on civil and criminal penalties, while residents also can designate money toward the system on their tax returns.

To qualify for Clean Elections money, legislative candidates must collect 220 contributions of $5 to demonstrate a modicum of support.

Clean Elections candidates received $14,319 or $21,479 for primary campaigns, and if they moved on, another $21,479 or $14,319 depending on whether they requested the higher amount for the primary. In return for that money, they had to forgo contributions from political action committees, businesses, unions and political parties and had to participate in candidate forums.

The Cronkite News Service review focused on reports candidates filed before and after the August primary election and before the Nov. 2 general election. Final campaign finance reports are due to the Secretary of State's Office by Thursday.

At least 11 legislative candidates used Clean Elections money to buy computers within an $800 limit on purchases of fixed assets. Some bought cameras and printers. Current rules allow them to keep that equipment. Clean Elections Commission rules require candidates to account for any fixed asset purchases worth $300 or more.

Michelle Ugenti, a Republican who won election to a state House seat representing Fountain Hills, Rio Verde and most of Scottsdale, bought her campaign a laptop when she visited a Best Buy on Aug. 30, recording purchases of $706.38 and $217.89 in her campaign finance reports.

"In my case, my computer crashed with everything on it," she said in a telephone interview. "I was simply following the rules laid out by Clean Elections, like I've done since I started."

Catherine H. Miranda, a Democrat who won election to a House seat representing downtown and south Phoenix as well as Guadalupe, reported spending $796.80 Sept. 22 on an iPad.

Cronkite News Service made several attempts to get comment from Miranda but was unable to do so.

Nick Dranias, director of the Center for Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute, which is challenging a key provision of Clean Elections before the U.S. Supreme Court, called such purchases unintended consequences of a well-meaning but flawed system. "Bottom line is, when you give people free money, they abuse that," he said. "Especially if you give it to them thinking the best of people in a sort of naive way."

Lang said he and the five members of the commission, a nonpartisan body made up of people from different parties and counties, are aware of the perception that is created when candidates are able to buy electronics and other expensive items with public money and keep them even after their campaigns are over.

The commission has proposed rules, up for consideration at its Thursday meeting, that would require candidates to turn in computers and other fixed assets, such as laptops, cameras and printers, after an election if they are worth more than $200. Candidates would have the option of buying the items back for 75 percent of the retail price; otherwise, the items would go to state surplus.

"Ultimately, we decided the benefit here is for the campaigns to have the money to spend," Lang said. "Why not have them turn in the big-ticket items at the end of the campaign so there's no concern, no issue?"

Asked whether she thought the proposed change was a good idea, Ugenti said she would absolutely comply.

"If that's what they choose," she said. "I follow the rules very strictly."

Jeff Dial, a Republican who reported spending $792.24 on a laptop during his successful run for a House seat representing Ahwatukee, Tempe and west Chandler, said he'd be happy to turn in fixed assets if the commission requires it. "That would be a good rule change. I think we have to look out for the taxpayers' dollars," he said.

Six Clean Elections candidates confirmed paying relatives to canvass, install and take down signs and serve as consultants. Twice that number reported payments to people with the same last name, but the others didn't respond to repeated interview requests made over a period of weeks.

Victor Jett Contreras, a publicly funded Democrat who lost a primary bid for state Senate in Miranda's district, paid his parents, Victor and Sandy, $660 each to knock on doors. He noted that his father has been out of work for two years. "Would he have done it for free? Possibly," he said. "But I'm paying other people. Why can't I pay my own father?"

Contreras said he paid canvassers between $10 and $15 per hour, depending on their experience. "Canvassing is not fun stuff," he said. "Knocking on doors the last few days are hell."

Clean Elections Commission rules leave it up to candidates to decide how much to pay for various services; however, Lang said candidates are expected to pay the market rate.

Sue Dolphin, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat representing much of the northwest Valley, paid her husband, Bill Dolphin, $500 to install her signs.

"A lot of times family members do a lot better job than outside vendors," she said. "My husband did a very good job. I know he was someone I could trust to do it correctly."

Rebecca Rios, a Democrat who lost a bid for re-election to a Senate seat representing much of Pinal County as well as parts of Maricopa and Gila counties, paid her father and brother, both named Pete Rios, $725 for one to install her signs and $500 for the other to do poll work. The elder Pete Rios is a former state legislator and currently serves on the Pinal County Board of Supervisors.

She said paying family members is a way of stretching her campaign money. As for compensating her family members rather than asking them to help free of charge, Rios said she was using the system in the fairest way possible.

"I could have easily had my family put up the signs and repair the signs and not reported that, but I think that is more disingenuous because you're receiving a lot of help you're not then reporting," she said.

Ray Cullison II, an unsuccessful GOP primary candidate from Kingman, paid his son $400 to tear down signs after the primary. "Basically, I was reimbursing him for his fuel cost and meals. I have no problems hiring anybody for what needed to be done," he said.

Democratic Sen. Manuel V. Alvarez, who lost his re-election bid, said living in the small Cochise County town of Elfrida made hiring his family the easiest option. He paid three relatives a total of $2,759.99 to install signs, work on advertisements and consult. "In a town of 300, where are you going to find people to work for you and your campaign?" he asked.

Bill Mahrer of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian civil liberties law firm based in Washington, D.C., pointed out that relatives could be knowledgeable about campaigns and hard workers. Still, he said, "If [voters] believe you're using it as a system of nepotism or simply as a means to hire your relatives, it's going to be more difficult next time around."

Lang of the Clean Elections Commission said it's well within the rules for candidates to hire family members; however, he said he was aware of the appearance it creates. "It's a tough one. It just looks bad," he said.