THERE IT SITS on Page 57 of a report filed by the Friends of Larry Farnese PAC in 2011 - a single item in a filing with hundreds of entries about campaign money raised and spent:
Bard College, Annandale. N.Y., $6,000, paid on July 8, listed as "donation."
Why would a Pennsylvania state senator in a district 200 miles away donate $6,000 to a small liberal arts school in upstate New York?
The FBI and federal prosecutors have proposed an answer to that question. This week, they indicted state Sen. Larry Farnese for using that payment to bribe a committeewoman to support his candidacy for Democratic leader of Center City's 8th Ward.
The committeewoman, who was also indicted, had a daughter attending Bard and heading for a semester overseas, but she fell short of meeting the bill. The allegation is that Farnese made the donation to pay the difference and get the committeewoman to support him.
Farnese, who is running for re-election this year, deserves a presumption of innocence.A second question is: How can a $6,000 donation to a private college be considered a legitimate campaign expenditure?
That's easy to answer: It is considered legitimate because the candidate said it was. Under the state law, that is enough - as long as he discloses it in campaign spending reports filed with the state.
People sometimes get the impression that Pennsylvania has a law regulating campaign spending. It does not. It has a law that requires regular disclosure of money raised and spent, but there is no regulation over how it is spent. Under the law, a political expenditure is defined as money spent "for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election."
That broad definition was included in the law when it passed in 1978, and nothing has changed since. What we do have is a long track record of politicians determining for themselves what equals a campaign expenditure. Often it includes the usual: printing costs, advertising money, salaries for campaign aides.
But, it also includes donations to local charities, lots of meals and entertainment, subsidizing the lease of a car used by the politician, paying for neighborhood block parties. The list is long and sometimes strange.
Farnese has raised and spent nearly $1 million in campaign funds since 2011, even though he hasn't faced serious opposition since he was first elected senator in 2008. He has no Republican opposition in November.
For anyone reading through hundreds of campaign spending reports, it's hard not to conclude that money is used not only for narrow political purposes, but also to sustain politicians' lifestyles.
After 38 years, the 1978 law is long overdue for a revision. And with that should come some mechanism to define and regulate what is a legitimate political expenditure. The state Ethics Board offers advisory opinions on whether an official is following the law. The city's Board of Ethics doesn't have the power to regulate expenditures, but it does serve as a watchdog over campaign spending and levies hefty fines for those who stray.