The N.C. State Board of Elections is investigating allegations County Commissioner Brenda Howerton misused campaign funds.
The complaints, filed by community activist Allan Lang, contend Howerton used campaign money to pay for out-of-state expenses covered by the county and banked fees for her personal account. The complaints also allege that Howerton billed her campaign twice for the same expenses.
Howerton said she or her treasurer made mistakes on required disclosure reports, but that she has not misspent donations or double billed the county or her campaign. All of the funding has been spent on expenses related to her holding office or campaigning, she said.
“I would not use a citizen’s money that they give me that would have me be out of integrity with them or myself,” said Howerton, owner of a consulting firm that specializes in organizational and executive coaching. “I am just trying to do the very best job for our citizens.”
Lang, who declined to comment, said the complaints speak for themselves.
Howerton also said that some expenses, such as “reservations rewards” and insufficient funds charges, were incorrectly charged to her campaign account and have been or will be reimbursed by the bank.
A review of campaign filings on behalf of elected leaders on the Board of County Commissioners and the City Council also indicate Howerton’s use of her campaign funds are unique in that they include frequent expenditures for “sustenance,” and meetings with constituents ranging from a $1.87 expense at Beyu Caffe to $43.44 at Parizade.
Fuel and out-of-town and -state restaurant expenses are also unique to Howerton’s campaign, compared to elected officials on the board and council.
Elected in 2008, Howerton is facing four fellow Democrats and one unaffiliated candidate in the November election.
This fiscal year, the commissioners chairman will be paid $24,271 and other board members $20,618 for their service on the board. Commissioners also receive $250 a month for local travel, a monthly telephone allowance, an Apple iPad, a printer and a computer. They also have an annual $4,000 budget for qualified travel, according to Michelle Parker-Evans, clerk to the board.
Candidates and elected officials can spend their raised funds on expenditures resulting from a campaign or holding public office, according to the State Board of Elections’ 2012 Campaign Finance Manual
“If the expenditure would have been made absent the candidate holding public office, then the candidate should not use campaign funds to make the expenditure,” it states.
Amy Strange, a state campaign finance compliance specialist, said her office gets about 100 complaints about campaign expenses a year, and if they are validated the candidates could have to forfeit misspent money.
Howerton said she spoke with the Durham County Board of Elections officials early into her campaign about appropriate expenses.
Durham County Board of Elections Director Michael Perry said he tells candidates that spending is flexible as long as it can be linked to the campaign or their office, and they are comfortable with it being reported by the media.
“You can go get a $400 hair cut,” he said referring to a high-profile expense paid for John Edward’s presidential campaign in 2007. “It has to pass that media test.”
Howerton and other elected officials claimed expenses, such as catering for fundraising or meals for campaign workers, but the smaller and frequent bills for coffee or meals were unique to her campaign.
For example, from February 2011 to August 2011, Howerton’s campaign paid for 16 meals totaling $309.88. Howerton said those meals typically involved a constituent who wanted to discuss county business.
During that same period, Howerton also billed her campaign for 11 out-of-town or -state meals totaling $195.23.
Those expenses include a $19.57 bill in August 2011 at a Bonefish Grill in Greensboro. A comment on the expense indicates it covered food for a “meeting with a constituent.” Howerton said last week that she actually met with Michael Dames, a representative of a Charlotte nonprofit, to discuss a “Bridges out of Poverty” program.
Other out-of-town charges relate to meals and expenses in which Howerton traveled for county business, Howerton said. The county covered some of the expenses for those trips and her campaign covered others, she said. For example, on a July 2011 trip to Portland, Ore. for a National Association of Counties’ annual conference the county paid for the hotel, conference fees, and $133 for four meals and other expenses. Howerton’s campaign paid for two meals that totaled $37.20.
Howerton’s frequent use of her campaign funds to pay for fuel are also unique compared to other elected commissioners and council members.
From June 2011 to December 2011, Howerton’s campaign’s fuel costs totaled $563, which is in addition to the $1,750 she received from the county.
Howerton said frequent trips across the state and the county exhausts the monthly county funds, and she uses her campaign dollars to cover the overrun.
“I visit my constituents,” she said. “I am out in the community.”
Commissioners Chairman Michael Page said he hasn’t charged fuel or meals with constituents to his campaign because he wasn’t sure it was appropriate, and he didn’t want to deal with the paperwork.
“If it is local, I don’t feel like I am justified enough,” Page said. “Most of the time it is not worth the paperwork for me.”
Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said she generally assumes that the monthly county payments cover her travel around the county. She also said her campaign doesn’t seek to raise a lot of money, so she saves campaign funds for items such as mailings and newspaper ads.
“My treasurer runs a tight ship, so I generally just file for the big things and not small things,” she said.