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Campaign-funded clothes violate donation law

- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

Gov. Sarah Palin, Rep. Robert E. Andrews or any other politician tempted to buy clothes on the campaign trail, take note of the government's latest ruling.

After a series of high-profile candidate wardrobe moments, the Federal Election Commission has concluded that using money from federal campaign committees to buy clothing for candidates violates campaign finance laws that prohibit the conversion of political donations for personal use.

The most ballyhooed political wardrobe moment occurred during the 2008 presidential campaign, when the Republican National Committee (RNC) paid about $150,000 for clothing at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus for Mrs. Palin and her family.

The new ruling doesn't cover that case because as a political party, the RNC was allowed to buy the clothes, which Mrs. Palin said would be returned or donated to charity. If Mrs. Palin had used funds from the McCain-Palin presidential committee, she would have run afoul of the law.

The Alaska governor's office did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday night.

The rules for politicians' own campaign funds are tougher, with campaign laws barring the use of campaign cash for "personal use," the FEC concluded in a ruling this month. The group began digging into candidates' clothing purchases after filing a complaint against Mrs. Palin and the RNC that was later dismissed. The watchdog group's additional complaints against congressional candidates, however, prompted the new ruling.

Among other examples, CREW cited nearly $1,000 spent by Mr. Andrews' campaign at Target, Benjamin Peters and Bon-Ton.

The FEC ruling found that the New Jersey Democrat used campaign funds for clothing purchases "in violation of the prohibition on personal use of campaign funds."

In response, Mr. Andrews' campaign told the FEC that he bought the clothes because he was traveling to Cornell University for a speech and his airline lost his luggage. Mr. Andrew's office in Washington referred calls for comment to his New Jersey office, which did not immediately respond.

But federal regulators took no further action against Mr. Andrews because he reimbursed his campaign before the complaint was filed and the amount of money involved was so low that it wouldn't merit further use of FEC resources.

"This decision puts federal candidates on notice that excuses for purchasing clothing on the dime of campaign contributors won't fly," Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group, said.

The FEC made similar findings in the cases of three other candidates - Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California and Republican candidates Bill Dew of Utah and William Breazeale of North Carolina.

The CREW complaint against Mrs. Sanchez involved $188.97 for "meeting clothing" spent on the congresswoman, an expenditure that her campaign said was reimbursed.

The Sanchez campaign also described the purchases in a response to the FEC as two "traditional Vietnamese dresses used for Rep. Sanchez's official appearances as a Member of Congress and for campaign events."

CREW also filed a complaint against the presidential campaign of Bob Barr, who was a Libertarian candidate last year. The FEC said the money, identified as for clothing in a campaign report, actually was for compensation to a staff member.