Since the election, state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, has spent thousands of dollars in surplus campaign money for travel, and lodging and meals in Washington, D.C. Other lawmakers have tapped such funds as well.
OLYMPIA — More than $2,000 at an Embassy Suites in Washington, D.C. Nearly $110 at a Hard Rock Cafe adjacent to Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot. Another $52 at Elephant & Castle, a restaurant just blocks from the White House.
In recent months, state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, has spent thousands of dollars in surplus election-campaign money to pay for airfare, as well as lodging and meals in Washington, D.C., where he also works for the Trump administration.
Ericksen, who took a job in January with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the nation’s capital, is one of more than a dozen lawmakers to use the little-scrutinized surplus campaign accounts in recent months, according to a review of state records by Northwest News Network and The Seattle Times.
Campaign finance rules govern how lawmakers can use unspent donations once an election is over. Among the options, they can hold the money for a future campaign, donate it to political parties or charities, or use it to cover unreimbursed expenses related to their duties as elected officials.
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State Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, bought nearly $1,300 worth of suits and ties with surplus funds, while state Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, spent more than $1,200 on airfare to his home district. Two other GOP senators have spent thousands of dollars in surplus funds to furnish their offices in Olympia.
Ericksen’s surplus spending may be fine, depending on what he was doing in D.C., said Evelyn Fielding Lopez, executive director of the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), which oversees the state’s campaign finance regulations.
If the senator traveled to meet state officials or Washington’s congressional delegation, for example, it could be considered related to his legislative duties, Lopez said.
“There might be a perfectly legitimate public-office-related activity going on,” she said. Using surplus funds for expenses related to a different elected office or job would not be appropriate, she said.
In an email, Ericksen said his spending is within the rules.
“All surplus fund expenditures are related to conducting my duties as an elected official,” he wrote.
He declined to answer questions about specific expenses, such as for airfare, and lodging and meals in Washington, D.C.
But, “These activities included meetings with elected officials and expenses related to duties as an elected official,” Ericksen wrote in another email.
The PDC generally doesn’t investigate the use of surplus funds unless a complaint is filed.
For lawmakers using the funds, “You are going to need to document that, you’re going to need to keep your records, and you have to be ready to explain, should you be questioned, what you used the funds for, and how it was connected with your public office,” Lopez said.
Juggling two jobs
Ericksen in recent months has been juggling both his legislative duties and his job as a communications director at the EPA.
A member of Donald Trump’s Washington state campaign team last year, Ericksen took the EPA position in late January. He says the job, which pays $77.58 per hour, is temporary.
He earns $46,839 annually as a state senator.
As of March 8, the EPA had not reimbursed Ericksen for any travel expenses between Washington state and the nation’s capital, according to information from a public records request by The Seattle Times.
The biggest expense Ericksen reported paying with surplus campaign funds came during his January trip to Washington, D.C., for the president’s inauguration.
On Jan. 23, his first day with the EPA, Ericksen reported spending $2,084 at an Embassy Suites hotel in Washington, D.C. On Jan. 19, Ericksen reported a $27 expense at a restaurant, Finn & Porter, located inside the hotel.
That also was the week Ericksen and former state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, spoke publicly about their jobs in the new administration. Benton, who led Trump’s campaign in Washington state, was named senior White House adviser supervising the EPA transition but now heads the nation’s Selective Service System.
While Ericksen reported the locations of meals and lodging paid for with surplus funds, the records don’t reveal the destinations for his airfare.
PDC records show two flights paid with his surplus funds reported the same days the senator also reported expenses in Washington, D.C.
On March 16, Ericksen reported spending $322 for travel through United Airlines, as well as $52 at Elephant & Castle, a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House.
On Dec. 12, 2016 — after the election, but before he took the EPA position — Ericksen reported $204 in travel through Southwest Airlines. That day, he also reported spending $109 at a Hard Rock Cafe and $47 at Dubliner — both in Washington, D.C.
That same day Ericksen reported spending $306 in Vancouver, Washington, between two establishments: The Heathman Lodge, and Hudson’s Bar and Grill. And also on Dec. 12, he reported spending $22 at a Famous Dave’s in Tukwila and $67 at Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Portland.
Others tapped accounts
Ericksen is one of at least a dozen state lawmakers who recently tapped their surplus campaign accounts.
Since Washington’s legislative session began in January, Riccelli, the Spokane representative, has spent $1,258 on four Alaska Airlines flights to his district.
During a long legislative session such as this year’s, House members get reimbursed for three trips to and from their districts. That includes one round trip to get to and from Olympia at the opening and closing of the session, and two round trips to hold town-hall events back home.
Riccelli said his travel is necessary to see his family and keep in touch with constituents. Spokane is far from Olympia, and heavy snow this year often choked the mountain passes over the Cascades, he said.
Two senators, meanwhile, spent thousands of dollars to redecorate their legislative offices in Olympia.
Lawmakers get a separate allocation of state money to cover office expenses, though many use that money to maintain district offices.
While their Olympia offices come with furnishings, Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, who moved from the House to the Senate this year, described his new office as “shabby.”
So he spent more than $10,000 in surplus funds at a store in his district.
“I’m pretty happy with how it turned out,” Zeiger said.
Earlier this year, Ann Rivers, R-La Center, spent more than $8,000 to furnish her legislative office. The purchases came from such retailers as Wal-Mart, Amazon, Wayfair, Target and Ashley furniture.
“I could use office money for that, but I’m pretty sure that that’s not what the people who elected me would expect that I would … use taxpayer dollars on,” said Rivers, who is one of a small group of lawmakers spending extra time in Olympia negotiating a deal on funding K-12 schools.
Furniture might be a legitimate use of surplus campaign money, depending on the circumstances, said Lopez. But the campaign actually owns that furniture, so a lawmaker should track what ultimately happens to it.
On Dec. 31, Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, reported spending $1,272 in surplus funds on suits and ties at Men’s Wearhouse. Since then, he has reported another $207 to resole shoes, and more than $400 for dry cleaning and suit alterations.
When asked about it, Pearson pointed out that he has also given surplus funds to charity.
Since December, Pearson has donated $500 each to the Monroe Food Bank and the Rock Church, also in Monroe. He have an additional $300 to the Monroe Christian School Fund and $200 to the Wounded Warrior Project.
His campaign donors have never disagreed with how he used surplus funds, Pearson said, and “as legislators, we don’t make a lot of money.”
Rivers also has donated surplus money to charity, giving $2,100 in March to the Rocksolid Community Teen Center in Brush Prairie, Clark County.