Photo credit: Valerie Garner, Roanoke Free Press
By Paige Winfield Cunningham
Alexandria, Va. – During his days as attorney general, Gov. Bob McDonnell ruled that Virginia law allows candidates to use their campaign funds on purchases like symphony tickets.
That was one way Del. Onzlee Ware, a Roanoke Democrat, used the money he raised. Ware also reimbursed himself anywhere from $350 to $750 on multiple instances in 2007 and 2008 without providing explanation, according to campaign reports posted by the Virginia Public Access Project.
Ware’s purchases prompted a complaint, and then investigation, by the State Board of Elections last year. But he escaped without any penalties or fines when the board ruled that a state prohibition on using campaign funds on personal expenses didn’t apply to Ware’s spending.
That’s because of where the prohibition is placed in the state code, said James Alcorn, deputy secretary for the SBOE. It’s in the section that lays out requirements for how candidates must file a final report when they decide to close their campaign bank accounts, he said.
“The board found there was no penalty because this specific subsection only applies on final reports and not on all other campaign reports,” Alcorn said.
The spending on a final report is the money that’s left in a candidate’s bank account when they decide to close it. If a candidate chooses to spend all of his or her money before closing out the bank account, then the rules don’t apply, Alcorn said.
“You could have a zero balance for many, many years,” Alcorn said. “When you file your final report, if you still have money available in your bank, then your rules regarding personal use would apply.”
Ware did not respond to three phone calls to his district and law office and two emails.
According to Virginia code: “It shall be unlawful for any person to convert any contributed monies , securities, or like intangible personal property to his personal use or to the use of a member of the candidate’s ‘immediate family…”
The BOE’s interpretation of the code is too narrow, says Lee Goodman, former deputy counselor to Gov. Jim Gilmore.
“I don’t think it’s time-limited to the very end of the campaign,” Goodman said. “I never understood the statute to apply to the wind-down of the campaign.”
Now, the board is waiting on another opinion from the attorney general’s office—this time, headed by Ken Cuccinelli—after the General Assembly charged the agency with constructing a more specific definition of what “personal spending” means, Alcorn said. But that definition will still only apply to funding on a candidate’s final report, he said.
Ware continues to record expenditures similar to those that prompted the investigation.
In April 2009, Ware paid $250 for a membership to the Taubman Museum of Art and spent $90 on two tickets to a “70’s event” at the Science Museum of Western Virginia. Two months later, he spent $250 on a sponsorship of the Vinton Fall Festival. And in September 2009, he paid $100 for a golf sponsorship to Roanoke Catholic Celtics Golf Classic.
In May of this year, Ware spent $826 at L’Auberge Provencale, a bed and breakfast in the Shenandoah Valley.