Cash politics; Donor money use 'fairly open-ended'.

Author:Sutner, Shaun
Position:Local
 
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Byline: Shaun Sutner and Thomas Caywood

When supporters give money to state legislative candidates, they might expect the cash to be spent on campaign basics such as mailings, bumper stickers and voter databases.

But hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent so-called campaign expenditures, in fact, went toward pricey perks for local candidates ranging from overnights at four-star hotels and expensive meals to gift cards that function like cash and airline tickets to far-flung cities.

Local lawmakers also routinely pay for liquor out of campaign funds, wedding gifts to supporters, fees for high-priced lawyers, car lease and insurance payments, storage units and even meat for a barbecue, according to a Telegram & Gazette review of the spending patterns of Central Massachusetts legislators from the start of 2012 to mid-2013.

Despite persistent calls from campaign finance system critics to tighten up regulations, such free spending is perfectly legal. And it's all on top of legislator base salaries of $61,133 a year and other benefits of elected office including travel per diem payments of up to $100 a day, district office expenses and leadership stipends.

Campaign contributions routinely are spent on items that burnish the lifestyles of lawmakers, who write the state's campaign finance laws and have established a system so permissive that nearly any expense can be justified.

The only requirement is that expenses provide "for the enhancement of the political future of the candidate'' and not be primarily for personal benefit, as spelled out by the state's decades-old campaign finance law.

For example, rather than commute daily from his home in rural Barre to Beacon Hill during busy budget sessions, state Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, spent 44 nights at various Boston hotels in the past two years. The veteran Democrat spent a total of about $6,700 in campaign contributions on rooms at 4-star luxury hotels such as the Omni Parker House, Bullfinch, Onyx and Boston Park Plaza.

Mr. Brewer, Central Massachusetts' most powerful lawmaker as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, also spent $35,000 -- in three payments on July 27 and Oct. 30, 2012, and Jan. 4, 2013 -- on lawyers from the Boston office of the international law firm Ropes & Gray.

The senator declined to be interviewed about his campaign account spending. A written statement provided by his spokeswoman didn't address the nature of the $35,000 in legal work performed on his behalf.

"It is a benefit to the myriad of responsibilities that I face in my position to seek impartial and independent legal counsel,'' the statement reads.

The spokeswoman, Meghan Kelly, didn't respond to follow-up...

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