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Doug Mastriano’s ‘strange’ financial report raises questions about his campaign for Pa. governor

The financial disclosure by a front-runner for Pennsylvania governor left some GOP insiders scratching their heads — and raised questions about whether his campaign is following the rules.

Pennsylvania State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) in Harrisburg in September.
Pennsylvania State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) in Harrisburg in September.Read moreDAN GLEITER

A buffet dinner reception at a Bucks County church. A “Deck the Halls with Doug” holiday gathering at a Centre County firehouse, with sweet treats and hot cocoa. A “Walk as Free People” dinner at an Indiana County church, including a VIP reception.

Those are among the fund-raising events State Sen. Doug Mastriano — now a leading Republican contender for Pennsylvania governor — promoted on Facebook last year. Tickets were cheap as far as political fund-raisers go — $75 tops, payable to his Friends of Doug Mastriano political action committee.

But no costs associated with those events show up on Mastriano’s 2021 financial report, which was made public this month. In fact, he didn’t report spending much of anything last year. The filing shows just one expenditure, recorded last January — $14,415.87 on processing fees for an online fund-raising service.

And he reported zero “in-kind contributions” — things of value that aren’t direct donations, like when a supporter pays for renting an event space or catering a fund-raiser. Nor did Mastriano list any debts, which candidates sometimes do when they haven’t paid bills yet.

The financial disclosure left some GOP insiders scratching their heads. Apart from one little-known candidate, Mastriano reported by far the least amount spent in the sprawling Republican primary field. Nche Zama, a heart surgeon running a long-shot Republican campaign, said he spent $54,000 — almost four times as much. Seven other Republicans each spent at least $90,000.

Mastriano built his political brand as an antiestablishment crusader — often directing his harshest criticism not toward Democrats, but at fellow Republicans in Harrisburg. Along with his support for former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, it has made him something of an icon among far-right activists.

But the unusual report — received by the Pennsylvania Department of State almost a week after the filing deadline — raises questions about Mastriano’s compliance with campaign finance laws. And it underscores Mastriano’s challenge of harnessing the grassroots energy powering his candidacy to build a professional operation even as he shuns consultants and big donors.

He might not need such institutional support to win the May 17 primary. Mastriano consistently has the support of about 20% of Republican voters in polls of the race — often leading the field. That could be enough in a race with a dozen candidates.

» READ MORE: What to know about Doug Mastriano and why he got subpoenaed in the Jan. 6 Capitol probe

Mastriano didn’t respond to detailed messages seeking comment. Messages left with his campaign committee and treasurer, Derek Lautenslager, also weren’t returned. Mastriano told Brietbart News in December that he “is absolutely compliant with Pennsylvania campaign finance law” and that “any ‘speculation’ to the contrary is entirely false.”

Pennsylvania’s campaign finance laws are notoriously lax. There are no limits on individual contributions, though corporations and labor unions face some restrictions. Spending rules are pretty loose, too.

“There’s enough loopholes … you could drive a fleet of Mack trucks from Allentown to Pittsburgh through them,” said Larry Otter, an election lawyer in Bucks County who’s worked for candidates of both parties.

But candidates are supposed to report just about everything they spend. The Department of State, as an administrative agency, can assess late fees. Enforcement falls to the state attorney general’s office and county prosecutors.

Victoria Perrone, a Democratic consultant who specializes in campaign compliance, said it’s “strange” that Mastriano didn’t report any credit card processing fees after last January — even though his report showed contributions throughout 2021.

“Either he’s only getting contributions via check donations and depositing them at the bank, or this report is just not complete,” she said. “It just seems so unlikely that they don’t have expenditures to report except for one month of fees.”

Mastriano had not filed an amended report as of last week, according to the Department of State.

» READ MORE: We're tracking the candidates running for Pennsylvania governor

Running 626 pages, Mastriano’s report did show some success in cultivating the kind of small-dollar donors who have helped fuel antiestablishment candidates in both parties. He raised about $360,000 last year, most of it in small amounts, and carried over $200,000 from the previous year. Mastriano reported having $550,000 in the bank to start 2022. That’s more than many lower-tier candidates, but he’ll have to ramp up considerably if he wants to compete on the airwaves with candidates like State Senate leader Jake Corman, who raised $3 million — almost 10 times as much.

Mastriano does have a knack for getting attention without having to spend money on advertising. The congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol subpoenaed Mastriano last week — something he promoted on Facebook.

But does Mastriano really even have $550,000?

Campaigns spend money on lots of things. There are the big expenditures — TV ad buys, for example, which can run into the hundreds of thousands or even millions in Pennsylvania. Top consultants rake in tens of thousands of dollars. Mastriano hasn’t aired TV ads and is believed to be running his own campaign without much if any help from political professionals.

But there’s also small, nuts-and-bolts stuff that even candidates running on shoestring budgets pay for, like registering a domain name for a website, making yard signs, and sending fund-raising emails. Mastriano’s political action committee has reported paying for those services in past years.

Mastriano waited until January to officially launch his gubernatorial candidacy. But he openly prepared a campaign for months, even boasting last May that Trump had urged him to run. (Trump’s spokesman disputed his account.)

His gubernatorial campaign website went live last year. The domain was registered in September. And Mastriano urged supporters on Facebook to donate money using his website as early as November.

“Help change Senator Doug Mastriano’s title to Governor!” read an “official Kick-Start” event promoted by his page Doug Mastriano Fighting for Freedom.

It doesn’t cost much to register a domain name: In 2020, Mastriano’s PAC paid Google $60 to renew one. Design costs can vary. Zama, the heart surgeon, spent more than $1,500 on web design, according to his financial report.

Mastriano didn’t report any such expenditures.

Nor did he report spending on a large billboard on a Chambersburg highway touting his campaign. The sign, reported by Breitbart, says it was paid for by Friends of Doug Mastriano.

And Mastriano had a busy schedule last year, attending events across the state to raise money and meet voters. Many of those events were organized by Mastriano’s PAC, according to invitations posted on his Facebook page.

If supporters cover the costs of an event that total less than $250, those don’t have to be reported as in-kind contributions. But events that cheap are rare. Otter said the cost of fund-raisers can range from “a beer and brisket up to a steak dinner.”

“A lot of fund-raisers, especially when they do them in people’s houses, they tap into their circle of friends and they put out a spread. They gotta cater it,” he said, speaking generally about such events. “That’s an in-kind contribution to the campaign. It should be reported as that.”

“If you do those around the state and get hundreds of people showing up, all of sudden you’ve got real money,” Otter said.

And Mastriano himself has used PAC money to pay for such things in the past.

In 2020, he reported in-kind contributions totaling $879 on food for events and “event facility fees.” In September of that year, he spent $1,008 at the Federal Taphouse in Harrisburg for a fund-raising lunch. And that same month, his PAC spent $3,060.75 on catering for a barbecue.