May Campaign Funds Be Used for Holiday Gifts? | A Question of Ethics

Article excerpt

Q. Over the holidays, I saw news reports that some members of the House use funds from their campaigns to purchase holiday gifts for constituents. As a concerned citizen, this practice surprised me. I would think that money donated to campaigns should be used solely for campaign purposes. Is it really okay to use campaign funds to buy holiday gifts?

A. Great question. Answering it actually requires considering two different bodies of law: federal election law and House ethics rules. Broadly, the use of campaign funds is governed by the Federal Election Campaign Act and regulations administered by the Federal Election Commission. However, active members of the House must also abide by House ethics rules administered by the House Ethics Committee.

In most cases, the Ethics Committee defers to the FEC's determinations on permissible uses of campaign funds. But, at least in theory, there may be instances where the Ethics Committee prohibits uses that the FEC allows. Thus, the Ethics Committee has cautioned: "A Member's use of campaign funds for federal office is permissible only if it complies with the provisions of both the House Rules" and FEC regulations.

So, let's start with the FEC regulations. In principle, you are correct: The regulations require that campaign funds be used solely for campaign or other official purposes. Campaign funds, the regulations state, "shall not be converted by any person to personal use." Violations of this restriction can result in stiff civil penalties and fines from the FEC. In some circumstances, where criminal conduct is involved, misusing campaign funds can result in even harsher penalties from the Department of Justice. Former Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., for example, is currently serving a 30-month prison sentence in part for using campaign funds for personal use.

The tricky question is what counts as "personal use." The regulations define personal use as when funds are used to fulfill a commitment, obligation or expense that would exist irrespective of the member's campaign or duties as a holder of federal office. This is sometimes referred to as the "irrespective test." The FEC lists uses that are presumed to fail the irrespective test and are therefore typically considered "personal uses," including, for example, a home mortgage, clothing, country club fees and tuition payment. …