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Virginia Candidates Find Creative Uses for Campaign Cash

Joe Morrissey waterskis in a turn
Sen. Joe Morrissey water skies at Lake Anna, Virginia in a video posted to his Facebook page.

Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) is a graceful water skier.

The proof is in a nearly 2 minute video that cuts, swoops, bobs and weaves with the controversial attorney as he rides the waves of Lake Anna, Virginia.

Morrissey spent $1,200 of his campaign money on the professionally produced video currently pinned to his Facebook page. He also spent nearly $900 on wheel and tire alignment for his Cadillac, over $2,600 on gas, and smaller amounts on car washes, vehicle registration, a parking ticket, and two months of parking for his wife, Myrna, according to campaign finance records.

The outlay is all legal under Virginia’s campaign finance system. Federal candidates face much tighter laws; they’re not allowed to spend campaign money on expenses they would have incurred even if they hadn’t been seeking office. In Virginia, similar rules only apply when candidates shut down their fundraising committee.

Virginia lawmakers’ unusual spending habits transcend party and chamber. Former GOP Del. Tim Hugo paid his teenage children to clean his office last year and spent around $1,700 on meals in the weeks following the 2019 election. Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake) spent more than $300,000 from 2011 to 2016 on expensive meals and a business club membership, according to the Associated Press.

Legislation that unanimously passed the House of Delegates would have limited the personal use of campaign dollars strictly to providing childcare during campaigns. But that bill failed last month in the state Senate, where lawmakers said it needed further study. Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier) won the body over with her argument that the bill as written would create a new, “onerous” body of law that could overwhelm the Board of Elections with “litigious and frivolous complaints that they cannot process.”

The Senate agreed to ask a broader campaign finance study commission to take up the issue in an unrecorded voice vote. That procedural move makes it impossible to know who backed the measure. Lawmakers also rejected proposed caps on corporate donations.

Morrissey’s legislative aide, Matt Wheeler, said in an email that the senator’s expenses “were directly related to constituent outreach and relations.” The vehicle costs paid for trips to help constituents, Wheeler said, and the video “was produced in order to further facilitate constituent relations.”

The Virginia Department of Elections only vets campaign finance forms for completeness and timeliness. Local prosecutors could choose to take up alleged wrongdoing, but almost never do so in practice. And while Virginia lawmakers created an independent ethics council in the wake of a corruption scandal involving former Gov. Bob McDonnell, the body only answers questions from politicians, not the public. 

The current system leaves it up to lawmakers to decide how to label and explain their spending. And it leaves it up to the public to parse what constitutes a legitimate expense. 

Some expenses are up for interpretation. Hugo, who is now running to become the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, paid all four of his children $50 to $200 apiece to clean his office after he lost a 2019 bid for reelection in the House of Delegates. He paid a college-aged son, Chris, nearly $1,500 since 2017 for expenses labelled “consulting” and “grassroots door knocking.”

Hugo continued to host volunteer events and use campaign money after his Nov. 5, 2019 election loss. He spent roughly $1,700 on a string of at least eight outings at restaurants through the end of 2019 that Dustin Rhodes, a campaign spokesperson, described as volunteer appreciation events. A 2013 Washington Post editorial noted Hugo’s travel, food and gas spending dwarfed most other lawmakers.

Rhodes said that Hugo’s children did not receive special treatment; the campaign also paid other high school and college students for their help. And he said the campaign expenses were justified. 

“It's called a Get Out the Vote Operation,” Rhodes said in an email. “We don’t have the unions to do that for us, so we usually use volunteers, or pay door knockers, including Tim’s son Chris, who helped us organize door knocking and yard sign distribution throughout the summer. The other kids were helping relocate the office after the election.”

Advocates for updating campaign finance laws argue even the perception of wrongdoing undermines public trust in officeholders. Nancy Morgan, an organizer with the Virginia chapter of the good governance group American Promise, said some incumbent senators who’d voted down the personal-use legislation were resistant to changing the rules that got them in office. 

“This was really a surprise to our entire group,” Morgan said of the defeat of the bill. “For the last two years we’ve been saying, ‘This is the lowest hanging fruit.’”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified water skiing as wakeboarding. It has been corrected.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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