Perfectly Legal

How one lawmaker uses campaign money to subsidize his mortgage, pay his bar tabs and explore Canada.

Rep. Mike Schaufler

When elected officials provided their statements of economic interest to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission last month, the filing for Rep. Mike Schaufler (D-Happy Valley) included one unusual disclosure—a trip to northern Alberta paid for in part by Shell Oil. 

Records show Shell Oil picked up the tab for Schaufler to inspect the Canadian tar sands, a prolific source of crude oil.  

A separate record, Schaufler's campaign expenditure report, reveals he charged another $2,859 for travel and lodging to his campaign account for the trip. And that's just one of hundreds of expenditures Schaufler has made in recent years that have no direct connection to campaigning.

Schlaufler's profligate use of campaign funds for a wide variety of expenses—all of them seemingly legal—suggests that Oregon's highly touted 2007 ethics law, which aimed at curbing lobbyists' spending on lawmakers, was at best a half measure. Although the 2007 reform made it harder to give pricey gifts to lawmakers, it didn't bar gifts disguised as campaign contributions. 

And after an examination of numerous other lawmakers' filings, it is clear that nobody spends campaign dollars in Oregon like Schaufler. 

"These kind of expenditures shows that all the commotion about Oregon's ethics laws is irrelevant," says Dan Meek, a public interest lawyer who authored two 2006 campaign finance reforms. "Any gifts the ethics law prohibits can be given in the form of campaign contributions."

The Calgary trip marked Schaufler's third foray to Canada in the past three years on his campaign's dime. (Schaufler explains he is first vice-president of an economic development group that comprises five Canadian provinces and five Western states. He does not draw a salary for that work.)

Unlike most lawmakers below retirement age, Schaufler, 51, does not have a job. In fact, he has not worked outside the Legislature since 2004. That could explain why he leans more heavily on campaign contributions than others.

"This [legislating] is all I do," Schaufler says. "I have a passion for public service."

The former union laborer and contractor says he is frugal, not wealthy (his wife is a dentist).

But Oregon's lax campaign-finance law allows him to use campaign contributions to fund his daily expenses to an extraordinary degree (see box below).

State elections director Steve Trout says those and other expenditures appear to fall within statute, which says funds may be used for "any lawful purpose."

Meek says the law's breadth opens up legislators to "corruption," but Schaufler is unapologetic. “Everything I do is legal, reported and ethical,” he says. 

"If you pay me and my colleagues a living wage, not a fraction of these [campaign] expenditures would show up," he says. "But I'm not going to pay out of my pocket to do this job."

Lawmakers get paid $21,612 a year in salary and a $123 "per diem" payment every day (including weekends) the Legislature is in session. That adds up to $19,680 a year for the long session every odd-numbered year. Schaufler is not the first to point out that lawmakers' pay is low. But since the passage of a 2007 ethics law, Schaufler has elevated the creative use of campaign funds to umatched levels.

"Schaufler's level of spending, especially on items that could be covered by his per diem, is atypical," says Janice Thompson of Common Cause Oregon.

State filings show, for instance, that since Jan. 1, 2009, Schaufler has charged his campaign nearly $6,000 for 91 separate visits to Magoo's, a Salem bar. Over the same period, he's charged his campaign $2,434 for 68 visits to another Salem bar called the Brick Bar & Broiler. 

“I’m surprised it’s only 91 visits to Magoo’s,” he says.  “I meet with people all the time on legislative business. And when I do, it’s paid for by my PAC.” 

Since Jan. 1, 2009, his campaign paid for 58 nights at the Phoenix Grand Hotel, totaling $7,392. Schaufler says long Salem hours make commuting difficult.

"It's just best to stay down there sometimes," he says, adding that this session he's saving money by renting an apartment—also with campaign money.

When the Legislature is out of session, he "rents" a district office in his home for $400 a month. That put nearly $5,000 in his pocket last year, which is allowed provided he charges himself a fair market rate.

When Schaufler charged his campaign for Salem bar tabs and hotel rooms, he was already getting a salary and a per diem check from the state.

Meek says that's wrong. "It's worse than double-dipping, because instead of getting paid twice by the state, he's getting paid by the state [salary plus per-diem expenses] and by his campaign contributors," Meek says. "It may be legal, but it's not appropriate."

Schaufler says he's a model lawmaker—he's never had an unexcused absence since first winning election in 2002, and regularly returns part of the money lawmakers are budgeted for office costs. And he adamantly insists his vote is not for sale.

"I don't pander or cater to any interest," he says. "I'm better at that than anybody in the Legislature."

What else did Rep. Mike Schaufler charge to his campaign account in 2010?

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