Q: My New Year’s resolution is to stop getting parking tickets. I
would be embarrassed to count all the money I send each year to the D.C.
treasurer for parking fines. Yet a recent article made me wonder if, as a Member
of the House, I have to pay these fines with my own money. The article said that
at least one other Member pays for parking tickets with campaign funds and that
this is allowed under the rules. If this is true, maybe I don’t need a New
Year’s resolution after all. I’m not sure how comfortable I would be using
campaign funds for parking tickets. But, just out of curiosity, do the rules
A: I presume you are referring to the recent reports that, over the
past several years, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) has used campaign funds to pay
roughly $2,000 in parking fines. In fact, Rangel is certainly not the only
Member to use campaign funds for parking tickets. In 2005, Sen. John Kerry
(D-Mass.) made news when his campaign paid $300 to the City of Boston for
overdue parking tickets. Similarly, during the 2008 Democratic presidential
primaries, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign reportedly paid
parking fines in New Hampshire and South Carolina. And,there are likely many
more campaigns that pay parking tickets without making the headlines.
So, is this OK? May Members use campaign funds for parking tickets? Or are
all of these Members violating the rules? The answer, as it turns out, isn’t
that straightforward. Sometimes Members may use campaign funds for parking
tickets and sometimes they may not. The trick is to know the difference.
The House Ethics Manual states that a “Member’s use of campaign funds ... is
permissible only if it complies with the provisions of both the House Rules and
the Federal Election Campaign Act.” In this case, House and Federal Election
Commission rules are substantially the same. Both provide that a Member may use
campaign funds for “bona fide campaign or political purposes” but may not
convert campaign funds to personal use. Personal use is defined as “any use ...
to fulfill a commitment, obligation or expense of any person that would exist
irrespective of the candidate’s campaign or duties as a Federal officeholder.”
While a federal statute defines “personal use” to include any
“noncampaign-related automobile expense,” the FEC assesses vehicle expenses on a
Under these rules, FEC and House guidance both state that a Member may lease
or purchase a vehicle with campaign funds and use that vehicle on an unlimited
basis for campaign and official House purposes. A Member may also use campaign
funds for the vehicle’s operating expenses, including insurance, maintenance,
registration fees and taxes. However — and here’s the key — if a Member uses the
vehicle for personal use beyond a de minimis amount, the Member must personally
reimburse the campaign “in an appropriate amount.” The House Ethics Manual urges
Members to consult the FEC regarding how to determine the appropriate amount.
While it is not always easy to predict exactly what the FEC would say with
regard to a particular expense, the commission has issued advisory opinions
regarding vehicle expenses that could shed light on how the FEC might view
parking tickets. For example, in 2001 a Member sought FEC guidance regarding
personal use of a vehicle purchased with campaign funds. The Member estimated
that 95 percent of the vehicle’s annual mileage would be campaign-related. The
Member proposed maintaining travel records of the mileage for personal use and
reimbursing the campaign at the Internal Revenue Service standard mileage rate.
The FEC approved the Member’s proposed record-keeping and reimbursement rate.
Interestingly, the FEC added that 5 percent annual personal use was de minimis
and that, therefore, the Member’s proposed reimbursement was not even necessary.
What does this all mean for parking tickets? In the absence of any guidance
directly on point, it would seem reasonable that, under FEC rules, it should be
permissible to use campaign funds for parking tickets incurred while a
campaign-funded vehicle is being used for campaign or official purposes. Indeed,
the 2005 news reports of Kerry’s use of campaign funds for parking tickets
included a statement from an FEC spokesman who said that Members may use
campaign funds for parking tickets as long as the tickets were
But what about parking tickets incurred during personal use of a
campaign-funded vehicle? The answer here is less clear. Under the 2001 FEC
opinion cited above, one could argue that, if the Member’s personal use of the
vehicle was “de minimis,” it would still be permissible for the campaign to pay
for the parking tickets. After all, if a Member is not required to pay for the
expense associated with de minimis personal use of a vehicle, shouldn’t that
also excuse the Member from paying for any parking tickets incurred during such
On the other hand, federal law explicitly defines “personal use” to include
“a noncampaign-related automobile expense.” The FEC might interpret this to
include parking tickets during personal use, meaning that Members could not use
campaign funds for such tickets.
Ultimately, only the FEC and the House Committee on Standards of Official
Conduct can say for sure when Members may use campaign funds to pay parking
tickets and when they may not. I’d say the safest bet would be to keep your New
Year’s resolution after all.
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