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Those who'll judge Ford face ethics questions about spending

BYLINE: Trent Seibert SECTION: LOCAL; Pg. 1B LENGTH: 1050 words By TRENT SEIBERT Gannett News Service Some members of the Senate Ethics Committee, who are probing Memphis Sen. John Ford's financial dealings, have used campaign funds for entertaining, gifts, trips and the purchase of a car. Ford has been criticized for spending campaign money on his daughter's wedding and other personal expenses. The Tennessean examined the campaign finance spending of the Ethics Committee members, who will sit in judgment of the Memphis Democrat. Two of them largely spend their campaign money on signs, stickers, surveys and other obvious campaign issues. But three committee members have spent money for other purposes: * Chairman Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, used his campaign fund to purchase a used car and to pay for repeated car repairs. * Sen. Curtis Person, R-Memphis, dipped into his fund to buy hundreds of dollars worth of gifts and flowers. Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Goodlettsville, also purchased flowers, as well as a trip to Boston for the summer's Democratic National Convention. * And the most powerful senator of all, Lt. Gov. John Wilder, who can sit as a member of all Senate committees, spent thousands of dollars buying lunches and dinners for his Senate colleagues at an exclusive club atop a Nashville skyscraper. The senators and their defenders say all the expenses are legitimate. But the expenses did not sit well with the Clarksville man who has filed a series of complaints against Ford and now wonders how deep the inquiry into Ford will go. "I do have a great concern regarding the thoroughness of this investigation because almost everyone up there, to some extent, is doing the same thing," Barry Schmittou said. "I don't have a whole lot of faith that this investigation will go as far as it needs to go," he added.

Part of the problems may stem from Tennessee's campaign disclosure laws, which allow politicians great leeway in how they spend their campaign cash - and does not require great detail in reporting how they spend it. In many cases the senators' spending may be completely legal, but it is difficult for the public to figure out what the money was spent on. And the wording of Tennessee's campaign laws raises many questions about the rules governing campaign spending. Could Ford's wedding expenses plausibly be a campaign expense? And what of allegations that surfaced recently accusing Sen. Mike Williams, R-Maynardville, of using his campaign finances to purchase NASCAR tickets. Could that too be a legitimate expense? Leonard Bradley, a lecturer in public policy at Vanderbilt's Peabody College who has served three Tennessee governors, said laws across the country tend to be written using vague language, leaving plenty of gray area for politicians to spend their campaign cash. "Nationally, there's widespread skepticism about the ability of lawmakers to make rules restricting their ability to spend campaign money," Bradley said. "The rules tend to be pretty loose and, in Tennessee in particular, tend to be pretty scant as far as reporting requirement and disclosure." A Pew Charitable Trusts study released in September 2003 gave the state an "F" grade after examining its campaign finance disclosure laws. The study ranked Tennessee 46th in the nation. And part of the problem, experts say, stems from what politicians are required to disclose to the public. In Tennessee they are not required to file receipts or show a bank statement to itemize spending. For example, Sen. Person used his campaign fund for spending described simply as "expense for legislative session." One in 2002 lists such an expense for $366.55. Person also gives out gifts and uses his campaign fund to pay for them. In 2002, he dipped into his account to pay $235 for a wedding gift and a baby gift he listed as a constituent expense. There is no other detail on the form, nor is any required. A 2001 report shows he spent $114.74 and listed it simply as "gift for baby." Person did not respond to a message for comment left on his home voicemail Tuesday night or a request for comment through the Senate Republican Caucus' senior policy advisor. Haynes spent $485 for flowers using his campaign fund, according to a 2004 report. On a 2003 report he spent $578 on flowers. And in 2004, reports show he spent $2,277.28 on his trip to Boston for John Kerry's nomination as the Democratic candidate for president. He was very careful when paying for the trip to Boston, he said in an interview, calling it a political trip. In fact, he made sure his wife's expenses were paid separately, and out of his own pocket.

Haynes said the flowers sometime go to the families of Senate members who have sick family members, or who have lost a loved one. The others have gone to constituents in similar situations. In fact, Haynes said the campaign money he uses from the fund for such expenses are just a portion of flowers and gifts he gives. "I don't ever reimburse myself for all of it," he said. He said he is in favor of tough disclosure laws. "I believe the public should know," he said. "It should be open." But items such as gifts and flowers could cross into a gray area, Vanderbilt's Bradley said. Republican Majority Leader Ron Ramsey described his car purchase as a completely legitimate campaign expense. "I follow the letter of the law to a 'T,'" he said. Ramsey used $3,656 in campaign funds to purchase a car, according to campaign finance records. The senator labeled the 1989 Pontiac Bonneville his "Nashville car" on his disclosure. He said he used it to drive back and forth to the Capitol from his hometown, 300 miles away. Ramsey said the purchase is anything but questionable. "I use it strictly for campaign purposes - 100 percent," he said. Since then, he has purchased another used car to take its place. In all, from 2001 to 2004, he spent more than $10,000 on cars and auto expenses. Every penny spent on his cars is legitimate, he said. "If I wasn't a state senator, I wouldn't have any of these expenses," Ramsey said. "I don't use it for anything else." Speaker Wilder has spent thousands of dollars entertaining fellow senators at the now-closed Cumberland Club. One such event cost $2,355. Wilder did not respond to a call seeking comment.