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Wagner campaign paid more than $130K to Penn Waste, company employee

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
A Penn Waste truck being used as a campaign ad for the company's owner, Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner.

Campaign finance documents show that Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner's campaign paid Wagner's own company and one of its employees at least $130,000 since last year.

Since January 2017, the campaign has paid Penn Waste nearly $80,000 for reasons ranging from $75 for trash removal to more than $35,000 for cell phone, car and miscellaneous payments, according to  documents filed with the Pennsylvania Department of State.

The campaign also has paid $55,000 to Penn Waste spokeswoman Amanda Davidson, who campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said works as the assistant campaign manager and treasurer.

The documents came to light amid criticism from incumbent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf of Wagner's continued business affiliations and refusal to release his tax returns.

More:From tax returns to Penn Waste: Will Wagner's financial decisions affect race?

More:Wagner's Penn Waste attempts to renegotiate contracts

Yet Wolf did the same thing, to a significantly lesser extent, during his first run for governor.

In late 2013 and 2014, Wolf's campaign paid The Wolf Organization nearly $4,000 for office space.

After he was elected, Wolf cut ties with the company and placed his assets into a blind trust, and no other campaign payments have been made to his former business.

The Tom Wolf for Governor campaign could not be reached for comment.

Questions: G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center of Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said such campaign decisions might not be the wisest.

"As far as I know, it isn't anything illegal, but there are always questions that can be raised when you're reimbursing your own company," he said. "It may not be the wisest practice, and I would go as far as to say it shouldn't be done."

 Wagner's practice — and his campaign's response to questions about it — mirrors that of President Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump — who appeared at a rally Thursday, Aug. 2, in Wilkes-Barre with Wagner —  was criticized for using more than $8.2 million in campaign funds to pay his family's business for transportation, campaign office rentals, events and staffers, which Politico noted was "unprecedented in national politics."

The largest chunk of the $8.2 million was  paid to TAG air, a company that provides Trump's private jet.

Politico noted most candidates, even the wealthiest ones, refrain from such self-dealing, "either because their businesses are structured in a manner that doesn’t legally allow them to do it with flexibility, or because they’re leery of the allegations of pocket-padding that inevitably arise when politicians use their campaigns or committees to pay their businesses or families."

The Trump campaign defended the spending and said the campaign "has fulfilled all FEC requirements" for reporting expenditures.

Romeo used a similar defense for the Wagner campaign's spending.

"The campaign has reported everything legally required of it," Romeo said after The York Dispatch requested to speak with Wagner directly.

The spokesman said that the campaign doesn't comment on specifics about the expenses "for strategy purposes." 

Unusual: Madonna said there are always ways a candidate with a business can keep the campaign completely clean and simply not use any of his or her company's facilities or assets.

Penn Waste recycling center director of communications Amanda Davidson talks about the dangers dirty needles pose to the company's sorters Friday, March 25, 2016. Penn Waste is urging customers to contain medical waste and dispose of it in their regular trash. Bill Kalina photo

He added that one thing Wagner can boast is that he's "certainly not hiding anything," as Wagner often campaigns with a Penn Waste truck decorated with campaign advertisements.

What's more unusual, Madonna said, is that Davidson is being paid for her role in both the campaign and Penn Waste.

"You then have to be careful discerning the specific hours, so people know whether the employee is working for the company or for the campaign, which always gets a little dicey," he said.

Romeo said that's why the Penn Waste employee also is drawing a campaign paycheck.

"Davidson works for the Wagner for Governor campaign and Penn Waste and is compensated for both roles specifically to avoid any conflicts of interest," he said. "That way the campaign is not taking advantage of a Penn Waste resource (in this case, an employee) without providing proper payment." 

Director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College Dr. G. Terry Madonna leads a political discussion, 2016: Presidential Politics in the Nation and State, at Yorktowne Hotel in York City, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016.

Pennsylvania Spotlight, a social welfare organization, first noted the Wagner campaign expenditures last week and has been following the relationship between the campaign and Penn Waste since the organization was founded in 2016.

"Issues like these are what brought our attention to Penn Waste in 2016 when we launched," said Eric Rosso, president of the organization. "Wagner has made his business the focal point of his campaign, and we see that in these Penn Waste trucks being used for advertising. It's completely unethical."

The bottom line, Madonna said, is that all of this could have been prevented if candidates would simply cut all business ties before getting involved in a gubernatorial race.

"What's going on here is that there's a relationship between the company and campaign, which always leads to questions being raised," he said. "You have to be extraordinarily cautious when using company assets in terms of personnel and hard assets."