By JESSICA WEHRMAN
The ex-attorney general charged his fund 300 times last year for meals.
WASHINGTON — Between political luncheons and banquets, dinners with staff and stops at gas stations for sodas and newspapers, former Attorney General Marc Dann often relied on his campaign kitty for meal money throughout his first year in office.
The charges aren’t illegal, but campaign finance watchdogs say the funds are supposed to be used for election purposes or to assist in performing one’s duty in office. Dann, they say, may have violated the spirit of the law.
“I think there’s a danger in the practice of using your campaign account to basically afford you a lifestyle,” said Nick Nyhart of the Public Campaign Action Fund, a campaign finance watchdog in Washington, D.C.
Some of the restaurant expenses were marked clearly as fundraisers in checks written by the campaign. Others were charged to a campaign debit card issued to Dann. His former treasurer, Bruce Lev, who resigned in April, said he could not explain the debit purchases because Dann had control of the card.
In an e-mail, Dann, who resigned last week, defended the meal charges and other expenses he billed to the campaign. “I did not allow anyone to pay for my meals as a candidate or as an officeholder,” he wrote. “All meals charged were either fund-raising meals, office-related meetings with people interested in the business of the office or with office or campaign staff who I would not allow to pay for my meals. I took no meal reimbursement from the state, ever.”
Catherine Turcer, director of the Money in Politics project for Ohio Citizen Action, was among those calling the charges egregious. “There’s a difference between, ‘I have to raise money so I can have a conversation with voters’ and ‘I have to raise money so I can get myself a hamburger,’” she said. “How could he even think this is OK?”
Dann, who earned $109,990 as attorney general, dipped into his campaign funds far more than the other statewide officeholders in Ohio, an examination of annual campaign finance reports filed with the secretary of state shows.
Dann, for example, charged his campaign for food and beverages more than 300 times last year, according to his annual report. During the same time period, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner charged 12 meal or food expenses to her campaign’s dime. Ohio Treasurer Richard Cordray charged his campaign for food just four times.
Republican Auditor Mary Taylor charged her campaign for food 86 times on her report, mostly for Lincoln Day dinners or county Republican Party events.
And Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland charged his campaign for 91 meals, although it is difficult to track all of Strickland’s meal expenses because he may have charged meals to hotels where he stayed on official trips.
As the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office continues a routine audit of Dann’s campaign expenditures, its auditors will find a few costs unique to Dann among Ohio statewide officeholders. They include:
U More than $30,000 in security expenses to SOS Security and Water Street Doors.
U Airline tickets for Charlie Dann, Marc Dann’s son, and Jessica Utovich, Dann’s onetime scheduler and girlfriend, to Texas for the Young Democrats Convention.
U $392 for XM Satellite Radio for Dann’s campaign car and, later, his state car.
In an e-mail, Dann defended each of those purchases. He said Utovich and his son “were both volunteers in my campaign. Charlie would frequently speak as a surrogate for me during and after the election campaign. The training that each of them attended at the Young Democrats meetings was a benefit to the campaign.”
Utovich resigned as an internal investigation substantiated sexual harassment claims involving two women in Dann’s office. Dann later admitted to an affair with a member of his staff, which turned out to be Utovich.
In his e-mail, Dann said the security system was essential because of death threats against himself and his children.
At the time he received those threats, Dann’s office was cracking down on unregulated gambling in the state and at least one threat was related to that work, he said. A second set of threats surfaced after his office reclassified sexual offenders under the Adam Walsh Act, he said.
Initially, the office recommended that Dann be protected by the Highway Patrol and his family by the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, commonly referred to as BCI. “I became increasingly concerned about the cost of the agents and troopers and asked if there were alternatives,” he wrote. “The BCI superintendent, the chief of staff and the trooper in charge of my detail suggested that a security system at home would make 24-hour security unnecessary.” He said he consulted with the campaign’s lawyers, who told him such a cost was appropriate.
As for the XM?
“XM radio was for the campaign car and later the state car that I traveled in,” he wrote. “I have put over 180,000 miles on the campaign vehicle and the state vehicle since fall of 2005. Keeping up on news was important.” He said the expenditure was approved by counsel for the campaign.