By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — A state lawmaker from Cambria County has, since 2009, paid himself $16,000 in campaign money by renting a campaign office in a building he owns.
State Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Cambria, spends $400 per month to rent space for a campaign office at 404 Park Ave., in his hometown of Patton, according to state campaign finance records. The campaign office is within the offices of Fix-It Shop Automotive, an auto repair garage owned solely by Haluska, according to his state ethics disclosures going back several years.
The use of his own campaign cash to pay rent in a building he owns is not against state law, and Haluska would also be allowed to provide his campaign with office space as an in-kind donation, as compared to pocketing $400 in rent checks each month.
Some observers suggest he would be better off keeping his political office entirely separate from his personal business.
Haluska told PA Independent on Wednesday that he doesn’t see anything wrong with the arrangement.
“It doesn’t matter if I pay rent here or pay rent somewhere else,” he said. “The office space is not being used, so rather than go somewhere else, we have everything over here.”
Since the automotive shop is directly across the street from his district office, having his campaign headquartered there for logistical reasons makes sense, Haluska argued.
Campaign finance reports show the first payment was made in January 2009, and Haluska’s campaign has spent $400 to rent space in the building on a monthly basis through April 2012, the most recent date for which campaign finance data is available.
Under state law, campaign funds can be used only for things that attempt to influence the outcome of an election, which would seem to cover the payment of rent for a campaign office.
Tim Potts, executive director of Democracy Rising Pennsylvania, a good government group, said office space could have been given to the campaign as an “in-kind contribution” that would not require any payment of rent to Haluska’s business.
“I doubt that people who donated to his campaign expected him to just put some of that money in his own pocket,” Potts said. “It’s ethically awkward, but it’s not illegal.”
Complaints about violations can be filed with the Department of State, which passes them along to the state attorney general to be investigated, but both offices do not comment on whether specific complaints have been filed.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, which advocates for good government, said the expenses were “ill-considered” because politicians should seek to separate campaign funds from their personal lives and businesses.
“The more you keep those separate, the better off you are as a politician and a public official,” he said.
Haluska is seeking re-election to a 10th term in the state House this November.
His opponent is Randall Phillips, a political novice from Reade Township in northeastern Cambria County who is running on a platform of lower taxes and a small state legislature.
Scott Hunt, spokesman for Wilson’s campaign, said Haluska making rental payments to his own business was “improper and unethical.”
“We don’t believe it can be justified at all, but we particularly question the practice during non-election years,” Hunt said.
The expenditures began in January 2009 – a year in which Haluska was not running for re-election, having just won an eighth term in the 73rd district the previous November – and has continued without a break after he won re-election again in 2010.
Haluska said the arrangement was appropriate and legal in the eyes of the state.
“It’s fine. It passes all muster with the election board,” he said.
Haluska was first elected to the state House in 1994 after his father, Edward Haluska, retired from the seat he had held since 1981.
Haluska ran the garage prior to becoming a lawmaker, but closed it soon after taking office in 1995. He said his family uses the space for and the campaign office but generates no other revenue from the former business.
The 73rd district includes all of northern and eastern Cambria County. The current redistricting proposal would redraw the district to include only a small portion of northwest Cambria County along with a wide swath of southern Clearfield County starting in 2014.
Lawmakers get a base salary of more than $80,000 per year.
As of May, Haluska had more than $6,400 in his campaign war chest.
Contact Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.