Pica spent thousands on meals Campaign funds of $25,339 went to restaurants, bars

December 07, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

When state Sen. John A. Pica Jr. announces his retirement from the General Assembly Monday, he will leave behind one of the best-fed campaign operations in Maryland.

Over the past four years, going to Jan. 1, 1993, the Northeast Baltimore Democrat has spent as much as $25,339 in campaign funds in bars and restaurants. During the same period, Pica raised about $180,000 -- meaning he and his allies ate and drank about 14 percent of the money they took in.

Pica defends the spending as "legitimate expenses." Under Maryland's vaguely written election law, he is probably on solid legal ground.

"Politicians reward their campaign workers in different ways," Pica said. "Some people give them paper clips or dice for their windshield. I like to feed my workers."

Apparently they ate well. Pica's campaign finance reports show that the senator and his supporters regularly wined and dined in some of the most elegant restaurants in Maryland.

Favorites included McCafferty's and Tio Pepe in Baltimore, as well as Maria's in Annapolis. More occasional stops included the Prime Rib, the Center Club, the Polo Grill and Ruth's Chris Steak House in Baltimore. On some occasions, the tab would run as high as $1,600.

"There's always a need for discussion of political issues, and I like to do it over dinner. I like a good meal," said Pica, 44. He noted with pride that Maria's has a dish named after him -- Veal a la Pica.

For Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, public-interest watchdog group, Pica's approach to campaign spending is unpalatable.

"It's probably legal, but it raises questions in the public's mind about the legitimacy of these expenses," she said. "Campaign funds are not intended to be used as slush funds to enhance the candidate's lifestyle."

The senator's campaign finance reports show that even by Annapolis standards, Pica took an unusually broad view of the term "field expenses," the catchall category in state campaign spending reports under which he listed his culinary forays.

The typical legislative campaign might list such things as a small charity contribution, maps of the district or election night party expenses. Pica's expenses included car lease payments, liquor for campaign parties and gifts for campaign workers.

Among other things, the senator's reports show that since the beginning of 1993:

Pica used $9,085 in campaign contributions to make payments to American Express. Asked about the payments, he said all were for restaurant charges. If those charges are added to $16,254 paid to bars and restaurants by name, the total comes to $25,339. The figure does not include the cost of fund-raising events or the the Subway sandwiches Pica bought liberally for his campaign workers.

The campaign paid $3,229 to General Motors Acceptance Corp. (GMAC). Pica said the money was used to lease a Pontiac for his campaign use, though the payments were being made almost two years before the 1994 election. "I was a full-time politician," Pica said.

The senator's election committee ran up at least $6,027 in cellular phone charges -- far more than the typical legislative campaign.

As of Nov. 19 of this year, the end of the last reporting period, Pica had amassed $6,738 in "field expenses" for the election two years away, which he has now decided to forgo.

Over the four-year cycle leading to the 1994 election, field expenses accounted for $53,064 -- roughly a quarter of the $212,981 Pica spent on his primary, in which he defeated Del. Curtis S. Anderson by 55 percent to 45 percent. Pica was unopposed in the general election.

By contrast, Democratic Sen. Paula Hollinger accounted for $13,381 in field expenses -- about a quarter of Pica's total -- to defend her Baltimore County seat through a contested primary and general election.

Nonincumbents generally made do with even less. Democrat Edward J. Kasemeyer reported spending $460.41 in field expenses to win a close primary and general election for a Senate seat in Howard and Baltimore counties.

Jack Schwartz, chief counsel in the Maryland Attorney General's Office, said the state's election law does not provide a clear definition of appropriate campaign spending. "This is a problem the legislature has grappled with for years," he said.

Schwartz said there must be a "clear and reasonable connection" between the spending and the promotion of the candidate. "Political fund raising is not an exercise in personal enrichment," he said.

Stephen Montanarelli, the state prosecutor, said no Maryland politician has ever been prosecuted for lavish spending of campaign funds on food or entertainment. When Pica's spending was described to him in hypothetical terms, he said such a case would be something he might want to look at.

"Going out every night and spending campaign funds for dinner is coming awfully close to a personal expenditure," Montanarelli said.

The prosecutor noted that the practice of attributing expenses to a credit card company is "not a proper way to fill out a report." A candidate is supposed to spell out what the spending is for, he said.

Sam Serio, a spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service in Baltimore, said the money used for such expenses is not taxable as long as the candidate can show the spending is related to the campaign.

However, he said that if a campaign were to be audited, travel and entertainment expenses are areas the IRS would scrutinize.

Pica said he would have no trouble justifying his spending -- including to the people who donated money to his campaigns. "If one of them complained, I would return their contribution if they wanted it that way," he said.

Pica said the proof of his approach to campaigning lies in the result.

"Haven't lost one yet," he said.

Pub Date: 12/07/96

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