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Posted at 4:32 PM ET, 09/22/2010

A smoke screen from the Va. elections board?

By Paige Winfield Cunningham

Del. Onzlee Ware (D-Roanoke) has whittled his campaign funds down to $163 (as of June 30) on things like rental cars, a bed and breakfast and the Ritz-Carlton, and now he says he's contemplating a run for statewide office in 2013? Ware said he's been traveling around Virginia to test the waters. At least, that's the explanation he's offering for how he's using his campaign funds, after I wrote about it one week ago.

Ware apparently feels a need to offer an explanation for his spending. But I wonder why he bothers to say he'll pay back some of the personal expenses he ran up at Tysons Corner, since the Virginia State Board of Elections says candidates can use their campaign money however they please.

Ware's expenditures are their own story. But the question undergirding all of this is: Why did the Virginia State Board of Elections change its interpretation of the law last year?

The board's October 2008 summary of Virginia election law included a prohibition on using campaign funds for personal expenses. That prohibition was located in the "expenditures" section. It stated that it's illegal to use any campaign funds for personal spending.

But by 2009 -- after the board started and then stopped an investigation of Ware's campaign spending -- the prohibition on using campaign funds for personal spending had been moved. Now, it appears in the section that addresses how candidates must file their final reports after closing their campaign bank accounts.

If you ask about personal spending now, election officials will tell you that the prohibition applies only to money left over after a candidate's account is closed. So candidates can keep their accounts open for years even if they're not running for anything (as long as they continue to file quarterly reports) and potentially spend the dollars however they wish.

James Alcorn, deputy secretary for the election board, told me that staff put together the election law summary and that he didn't know anything about why the prohibition was moved.

Must be a lucky coincidence, then, because it gave election officials an excuse to end a probe into Ware's campaign spending that some lawmakers say was illegal to begin with. Unlike most other states, Virginia's election board isn't allowed to audit spending reports. The most it can do is make sure reports are filed, make sure they're filed on time and make sure they're filled out completely.

Del. Jim Scott, a Fairfax Democrat, has tried three times to pass a bill giving the election board authority to audit spending reports. But, for now, asking candidates to explain why they purchased something is beyond the board's authority.

So if Del. Ware wants to spend $100 at Richmond's premier cigar shop (Havana Connections, spent on March 6 and April 19), he can do so without being questioned by the board.

Prompted by a complaint about Ware's spending habits, election officials said in June 2009 that they were drafting policies for detailed investigations of candidates' spending, according to the Roanoke Times. But later that summer the election board ended the investigation, citing its new interpretation of state law: that candidates' spending is up to them.

I'm no attorney, but that interpretation seems a bit odd considering that campaign committees are, by definition in the state code, set up to make expenditures in connection with a candidate's nomination or election. So I'm left wondering: Is the board's interpretation a viable one, or is the board just putting up a smoke screen?

Paige Winfield Cunningham is an investigative reporter and managing editor at Old Dominion Watchdog. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Paige Winfield Cunningham  | September 22, 2010; 4:32 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, Va. Politics, Virginia  
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