County Executive Ike Leggett has paid more than $30,000 out of pocket for trip expenses that the state Board of Elections invalidated as campaign expenses.
Leggett had put part or all of his travel expenses to four Montgomery Sister Cities on his campaign’s tab. His campaign had paid for part of the trips to El Salvador in 2011, Ethiopia in 2012, and China in 2013, totaling $9,200. Leggett also personally paid $12,776 for the China trip and said he paid about the same amount for an upcoming trip to India. Leggett said he paid for both out of pocket as loans to his campaign he hoped he would get reimbursed for if there were funds left over.
In a letter to Leggett’s campaign dated Sept. 8 concerning the first three trips, the Board of Elections said they were not sufficiently related to campaign activities and he could not be reimbursed for the loans. The India expenses were not part of the board’s audit, but the same rules would apply. Leggett has since reimbursed the campaign for the $9,200 out of pocket but said he plans to appeal the decision.
Jared DeMarinis, director of the board’s candidacy and campaign finance division, said campaign expenses must be primarily for electoral activities.
“(The idea is) I would not have done this expense but for I’m the candidate,” he said. “We did not see the electoral purpose as a primary factor for this trip.”
The Sister Cities are a program that Leggett established by creating the Office of Community Partnerships. The program aims to recognize diversity and enhance business partnerships. The first sister city was established in 2011 in Morazán, El Salvador.
Although Leggett went on the trips as county executive, he said he saw the trips as enhancing his candidacy because they taught him about the communities he would be representing.
“If you look at campaigns, people go to lots of countries to get knowledge, to understand the culture…It helps the campaign, especially when the people in the county, state, or region come from those countries and certainly we have that in Montgomery County,” Leggett said. “You could take the same money and say I’m going to send out a brochure that I know about some historical significance in your community, or you could take three or four thousand dollars and say I’ve seen your country firsthand.”
Leggett said he was trying to save the taxpayers money by using his campaign funds instead, but the board said the county should have paid for it.
“This is the irony of it, because normally people are taking money from the government or public money and paying for things that are political and so we thought we were doing something that was highly acceptable, saving the taxpayers money,” Leggett said.
DeMarinis said they received an anonymous tip in the spring that led to looking into the Sister Cities trips. Ordinarily, they audit every candidate’s finance reports to make sure no information is missing, but they also try to respond to tips as they come in.
There are no repercussions for Leggett other than reimbursing his campaign for the trip expenses.