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Bellavia in a thicket on finances; Federal watchdogs delve into four sets of errors

Four times in the last year, federal election watchdogs have questioned David Bellavia's campaign finances -- including $19,239 in mysterious expenditures.

And all four times, the Bellavia congressional campaign has failed to reply to the Federal Election Commission's letters.

The letters, along with a series of supposedly routine campaign finance disclosures that appear to be riddled with errors that the campaign blames on a recently fired treasurer, are posted to the FEC's website.

And while officials at the agency declined to comment on Bellavia's campaign finance reports, a former FEC official and Washington campaign finance expert said Bellavia's errors and lack of responsiveness are unusual and significant.

"It tells you a lot about the kind of campaign he is running," said Kent Cooper, the former FEC official who is co-founder of CQ/Roll Call's Political Money Line, a leading campaign finance website.

A decorated Iraq War veteran from Batavia, Bellavia ran an abortive third-party race for Congress in a special election in New York's 26th District last May. He now faces former Erie County Executive Chris Collins in a June 26 primary for the Republican nomination to face Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, in New York's newly redrawn 27th District.

The campaign finance problems began June 15, when the FEC sent Bellavia's campaign a letter asking for more information about expenditures in his campaign finance report for the first quarter of 2011.

In itemizing expenses in that report, "Bellavia for New York" said that it paid itself out of campaign funds for meals, fuel, office supplies and other items totaling $11,139.

The problem with that report?

"The campaign committee can't pay itself," Cooper said.

Instead, the business that provided the service must be listed as the recipient of payment.

The Bellavia campaign did the same thing in the second quarter of last year, paying itself, inexplicably, for an additional $8,100 in expenses.

Cooper speculated that the filings may indicate that Bellavia was paying himself out of campaign funds, something that some other local congressional candidates have done in the past.

Bellavia, who makes his living as an author and public speaker, said that is not the case. The author of a best-selling Iraq War book, "House to House: An Epic Memoir of War," Bellavia also co-wrote and sold the screenplay for a forthcoming film, "Tie That Binds."

"Every single reported disbursement from my campaign committee was for legitimate campaign expenses," Bellavia said in a statement. "At no time have I ever taken a personal payment from my campaign account other than legitimate campaign expense reimbursement."

Bellavia blamed the problems in his campaign filings on the friend he relied on to serve as his campaign treasurer, William J. Hagan.

"When I discovered the lingering problems with our FEC reports at the start of this campaign, I immediately appointed a new treasurer, who is working with qualified counsel to provide the FEC with any requested information still outstanding," Bellavia said.

But as of late last week, the new treasurer -- identified in Bellavia's latest FEC filing as "David, NY, 12124 Levin" -- had not filed amended reports to answer the FEC's complaints, according to the agency's website.

The agency sent the Bellavia campaign additional letters requesting more information Feb. 9 and March 15. As it had done in its other letters, the agency asked for more details on debts that the campaign reported on all four of its 2011 quarterly reports.

Those debts -- credit card charges of $1,374.95 and $789.75 -- remain exactly the same in all four of those reports, which do not list the credit card companies that the Bellavia campaign owed.

Of course, it's highly unlikely that unpaid credit card debts would remain exactly the same if they remain unpaid month after month, but Bellavia told The Buffalo News that the situation is easily explained.

"The two credit card debts were expenses I incurred on my personal cards for legitimate campaign expenses which I was required to report to the FEC," Bellavia said. "The entries remained on the reports until the first quarter of 2012, when I chose to forgive my personal loans to my campaign."

In his statement explaining his campaign finance filing problems, Bellavia also appeared to blame the controversy on the Collins campaign.

"It's despicable that the Collins campaign makes yet another scurrilous attack on my candidacy," Bellavia said. "The voters are sick and tired of the Collins political machine's nasty attack mentality, and they see right through this transparent attempt to destroy an opponent rather than debate the issues we all care about: the future of our families, jobs, taxes, farms and businesses."

But Cooper said the FEC's complaints add up to a serious matter. While the agency frequently asks campaigns for more information, he said it's unusual for campaigns to ignore repeated requests by the agency. "If you do that, you're just setting yourself up for an audit or a compliance case," Cooper said. "It just gets worse and worse and worse."

What's more, messy campaign finance disclosures raise legitimate questions about the candidate, Cooper said, adding:

"Here's a guy who's going to help us with the federal budget?"