TOPEKA — With no other reported source of income, Rep. TerriLois Gregory found a way to supplement her legislative salary recently: campaign funds.
Gregory wrote herself a $4,600 check a week after losing her primary in August. According to muddled campaign finance filings, her campaign still owes her more than $13,000, largely for a burgeoning total of self-reported mileage that strains the imagination of one long-time legislator.
The Republican’s 10th District stretches from Lawrence in the north to Ottawa in the south. It is a distance of about 30 miles at its longest point. In 2011, Gregory reported enough mileage to trek the length of the district 549 times.
Gregory claimed 16,474 miles of business travel throughout her two-county House district at 51 cents per mile, creating an $8,401.74 bill for her campaign.
“I think it’s virtually impossible she could travel that number of miles given the fact that her district is relatively compact compared to, say, Ralph Ostmeyer’s” Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said.
Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, represents a district that stretches over 18 counties in sparsely populated northwest Kansas. Ostmeyer reported 9,807 miles last year. Even in his heaviest travel year, 2008, his 14,251 miles fall short of Gregory’s total in her first year.
Gregory continued to report extensive travels this year. She wrote herself a $2,797.20 mileage check out of campaign funds on June 30 on top of $883.20 in transportation money she received from the state for the legislative session. She has since reported another $2,296.25 that the campaign owes her.
Carol Williams, executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, said her organization requires candidates to keep mileage logs outlining the business behind each trip.
“When we do audits — and we do, do audits — we require them to provide us with their log or journal they keep to make sure it adds up,” Williams said.
Gregory’s last finance report says her campaign owes her $13,511.92 for mileage and other expenses. She reports $5,469.20 in campaign cash remaining, but is allowed to keep raising funds to make up the difference even though her re-election bid failed.
Williams said her office will review all legislators’ campaign finances in January, when all 2012 transactions are reported.
“Whenever there appears to be a questionable expenditure or an expenditure that needs more documentation, the commission, through its errors and omissions process, requires candidates to provide explanation for those expenditures and back-up documentation,” Williams said.
Williams’ office has just two auditors, though, and proposed axing one of them when asked for a budget that assumes 10 percent cuts next session.
Lynn Hellebust, who served as executive director of the governmental ethics commission when it was formed in the 1970s, said there is a conflict of interest in legislators holding the purse strings and setting the legal parameters of the commission tasked with regulating them.
“It’s like trying to hold a tiger by the tail,” Hellebust said. “It’s inherently a problem.”
Hellebust said during his tenure the commission tried to get access to lawmakers’ tax returns, but was rebuffed by the Kansas Department of Revenue. He couldn’t recall whether the commission asked legislators to pass a bill granting access, but was confident in what the response would have been.
“They would have laughed at us,” Hellebust said.
Gregory has ended up before the ethics commission in the past. She was fined $150 in 2011 after using her state email account to send a newsletter soliciting campaign contributions.
Gregory told the ethics commission she sent the solicitation from the wrong email account by mistake.
She believes her mileage totals are accurate, though. Gregory told The Topeka Capital-Journal in September the numbers don’t strike her as strange and she couldn’t say why other legislators don’t approach her documented travels.
Gregory produced a mileage log for 2012 that showed almost daily meetings with lobbyists and constituent groups.
“It was unusual for me not to have multiple meetings a day,” Gregory said. “I just felt like it was my job to attend meetings I was invited to. I drove where I needed to.”
When told this summer of Gregory’s mileage totals, her 2010 opponent, Scott Barnhart, Ottawa, wasn’t surprised.
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Barnhart said. “She moves.”
High mileage isn’t the only unusual item in Gregory’s campaign finance reports, though.
Her most recent report includes 16 entries dated Oct. 26, although the reporting period only goes through Oct. 25. She appeared to take the $13,596.27 that she reported her campaign owing her at the end of July and subtracting the $4,600.27 she paid herself, while carrying over the remaining $8,996.00 as a “balance” owed her. She then added about another $4,000 in expenses, most of which correlate with “in-kind” contributions of goods and services that aren’t reimbursable.
“She clearly is not reporting correctly,” Democratic Party chairwoman Joan Wagnon, a former secretary of the Kansas Department of Revenue, said. “I have no idea if she’s misusing her funds because it’s so garbled you can’t tell.”
Reached by phone, Gregory said she was sick and declined to talk about her most recent filing. She didn’t respond to a subsequent email.
Her campaign also wrote an $8,057.11 check on Aug. 2 for “printing” paid to “Campaign Services” at an unspecified P.O. box with the same ZIP code as Gregory’s Ottawa address.
A search of the Kansas secretary of state’s database turned up no businesses in Kansas named “Campaign Services.”
“She either doesn’t know what she’s doing or she’s making some money on this deal,” Wagnon said. “And I can’t tell which.”
Legislators must file with the secretary of state’s office an annual “Statement of Substantial Interests” that lists investments, employment and other major sources of income.
Gregory’s 2012 statement shows a retirement plan through Wells Fargo. Her only listed employment is as a legislator for the state of Kansas, which pays about $26,000 in salary and daily expenses.
Hellebust said he had “mixed feelings” about Gregory’s big mileage reimbursement.
On the one hand, while he stressed he doesn’t know if Gregory is “padding” or not, her mileage totals deserve a thorough examination.
On the other hand, he said, mileage reimbursements put candidates on more even footing with “independently wealthy” opponents and Gregory’s campaign account is small potatoes compared to some of the treasure chests compiled for this year’s heated elections.
But he and Wagnon both said her filing illustrates the importance of a well-appointed ethics commission.
“In the last few years the changes that have occurred in campaign finance have created a situation where money is simply overwhelming the whole process,” Hellebust said. “Pulling money out to cover travel expenses is a very small element in the whole picture.”