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State Sen. Robin Wright-Jones

State Sen. Robin Wright-Jones

ST. LOUIS • State Sen. Robin Wright-Jones filed a campaign report last August showing that she had almost $96,000 in the bank.

When she filed a new report two weeks ago, it showed just $211 on hand — and did not account for how more than $95,000 was spent.

The report also showed some questionable payments, including campaign money spent on shoes and on phone bills for which Wright-Jones had already been reimbursed by taxpayers.

Under state law, political candidates are responsible for tracking each dollar in their campaign accounts, which cannot be used for personal expenses.

Wright-Jones, a Democrat whose district includes about half of the city of St. Louis, blamed the campaign cash discrepancy on errors by her treasurer, who she said fell ill. Wright-Jones insisted, however, that the thousands of dollars unaccounted for in her campaign fund were spent on legitimate expenses and that they were not recorded properly.

Wright-Jones, who was sued earlier this year over the tab for her $6,000 birthday party, acknowledged that she should not have bought shoes with her campaign fund and conceded there had been a "very large" oversight on expensing her phone bills.

"I have nothing to hide," Wright-Jones, 61, said. "This is just one of those things that went sour."

She added that she has enlisted a private accountant to review her campaign finances.

Campaign reports show that Wright-Jones raised about $120,000 in her successful bid for an open Senate seat in 2008. Since 2010, Wright-Jones has sporadically filed the required campaign reports, which are due quarterly. Her campaign owes the Missouri Ethics Commission more than $5,000 in late fees, fines that must be paid before Wright-Jones can file for re-election next year.

In an August 2010 report, Wright-Jones' campaign showed a total of $95,847 cash on hand at the end of the reporting period. But her next full report, filed six weeks late on May 31, showed she opened the new fundraising period with only $211.

Those two numbers — the amount available at the close of one period and the amount available at the beginning of the next — should be identical, according to the Ethics Commission. Wright-Jones' reports show a cash discrepancy of $95,636.

"Those cash-on-hands should be matching," said the commission's executive director, Julie Allen, speaking about campaign finances in general. "Your ending should come to your beginning on the next report."

The Ethics Commission does not comment on whether it has an inquiry open, but the agency can investigate candidates' campaign finances and impose civil penalties or, if necessary, forward the findings to prosecutors.

"If there is some type of fraud or theft, the commission would have the authority to refer that to a prosecuting authority," Allen said.

Wright-Jones said her treasurer listed campaign donations on the forms but failed to enter costs for legitimate campaign expenses, resulting in an inaccurate cash balance.

"She would load in donations, but she would not do expenses, just because she was not capable," Wright-Jones said.

The campaign's treasurer is Rochelle Tilghman, an assistant vice president for business and financial affairs at Harris-Stowe State University. Tilghman has previously served as a campaign treasurer for Maida Coleman, Wright-Jones' predecessor in the Senate, and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr.

Tilghman, who is on medical leave from Harris-Stowe, could not be reached for comment. A voice mail greeting at her office says she is not available to receive, or return, phone calls. Wright-Jones said Tilghman had been infected by H1N1, or swine flu.

SHOES AND BOXING

In addition to the cash disparity, Wright-Jones lists in the May report $111 spent at Marmi, a shoe store at the Galleria Mall. In a description line in the campaign report, the expense is listed as "non-campaign."

Wright-Jones said she bought the shoes for a political event but could not recall which one. She said she later wondered whether the expense was appropriate.

"After I did that, I thought, 'Maybe I shouldn't have done that,'" Wright-Jones said, explaining why she labeled the expenditure as "non-campaign."

Wright-Jones said she planned to reimburse her campaign for the shoes, which were bought in October.

State law says campaign funds cannot be "converted to any personal use." A willful violation of that provision can result in a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.

In another expenditure in the May report, Wright-Jones lists paying $362 in meeting expenses to "Scott Trade Tickets." The entry shows an address on North First Street in St. Louis. That address belongs not to Scottrade Center, but to one of two hotels connected to Lumière Place casino.

Wright-Jones said the expense was for four tickets to a boxing match at Scottrade Center, tickets she gave to campaign supporters. Wright-Jones declined to say which backers received the tickets.

"I have a right to give them to who I want to," Wright-Jones said.

Ethics reports show that Wright-Jones received free admission to the same August 2010 boxing match from an AT&T lobbyist, although Wright-Jones says someone else went in her place. The fight featured hometown favorite Cory Spinks.

Wright-Jones said a typo was to blame for listing the casino's address.

A birthday party in the other hotel at the same casino complex last year recently landed Wright-Jones in legal trouble.

In January 2010, she threw a 60th birthday party for herself at the Four Seasons Hotel, which is attached to Lumière. The celebration featured coconut shrimp hors d'oeuvres, a made-to-order pasta station and roasted sirloin of beef.

Five Capitol lobbyists contributed $500 each to help fund the party, but the hotel sued Wright-Jones in March after she failed to pick up the remainder of the $6,000 tab.

The case has been settled ahead of a scheduled hearing on Monday, a law firm representing the Four Seasons confirmed. Wright-Jones said she is prohibited from discussing the details of the settlement.

Wright-Jones' campaign report also lists phone expenses that have attracted attention in Jefferson City.

The state legislature reimburses lawmakers for expenses associated with fulfilling the duties of office, such as telephone costs. But Wright-Jones' campaign reports indicate her campaign paid for phone bills that she had already been reimbursed for by the Senate.

For instance, on Sept. 28, the Senate reimbursed Wright-Jones $170.56 for an AT&T phone bill for her district office in Midtown. On Oct. 13, her campaign report shows a payment to AT&T for $178.56. The slight difference may reflect a late fee; the $8 charge is listed on the bill she submitted to the Senate, but Senate policy does not allow for the reimbursement of late fees.

That pattern — her campaign showing phone payments for which Wright-Jones had already been reimbursed by taxpayers — is repeated at least twice for similar amounts, once in July and again in December.

Wright-Jones said she was changing staff at the time, which may have contributed to the duplicate expenses.

"It's an oversight, to a very large degree," she said.

When senators submit expenses, they sign an affidavit stating that the bills are necessary for state business and paid for with personal funds.

After questions by the Post-Dispatch, state Senate administrator Jim Howerton contacted Wright-Jones about the invoices.

"I have made the senator aware of the invoices in question, and she is looking into the matter," Howerton said.

ACCOUNTING HELP

Wright-Jones is serving her first term in the Senate after almost seven years in the House. With a district that runs from downtown to the Central West End, she is a key ambassador for city interests in the Legislature. A bill she sponsored this year seeks to increase access for prostate cancer screenings for low-income patients.

A former teacher, Wright-Jones lists no source of income on her most recent financial disclosure statement other than her position in the Senate, which pays about $36,000 a year.

She said she had asked a private accountant — whom she described as a "forensic" accountant — to look at her campaign finances.

Wright-Jones says she has sent in forms to change her campaign committee, although she would be prohibited from opening a new campaign account until the $5,300 in late fees she owes the Ethics Commission is paid.

Wright-Jones said she was in the process of untangling her earlier campaign reports and was prepared for the Ethics Commission to "fine me whatever."

"Our faith tells us we need to work toward perfection," she said, "even if we may not attain it."

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