State lawmakers rack up hefty cellphone bills for taxpayers to foot

State lawmakers rack up hefty cellphone bills for taxpayers to foot
In this Jan 14, 2013 photo, Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, uses a mobile device at his desk on the floor of the Senate in Olympia, Wash. Delvin, who like other legislators submits his cell phone bills for reimbursement by taxpayers, regularly posted cell phone bills surpassing $180 per month over the past two years, with some jumping much higher. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - During last year's wrangling with budget troubles, Washington state Sen. Jerome Delvin racked up a cellphone bill that would make most users recoil - $309.21 in a single month.

The bill wasn't unusual for Delvin, who submitted the costs for taxpayers to cover. The Republican from Richland regularly posted cellphone bills surpassing $180 a month during the past two years, with some jumping much higher and one topping out at $382.75.

Delvin said the higher bills were typically from when he was travelling, but he acknowledged that he may need to reassess the AT&T plan that gives him 700 minutes a month.

"There's probably a cheaper plan out there," Delvin conceded.

Records obtained by The Associated Press under public records laws show that a variety of lawmakers have consistently submitted hefty cellphone bills that stretched beyond the normal cost of even some of the most generous wireless plans. Others seemed to submit expenses carefully crafted to avoid disclosure rules.

Some lawmakers got compensation for large portions of the family plans that they shared with others. Records show that Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, received full compensation for his entire family plan that he shares with his wife.

After an AP reporter asked Kline about the expenses, such as one monthly bill that was $193.48 for two phones, Kline said he was checking into the matter. He later said that it was done in error and said he plans to reimburse the state for the money paid to cover his wife's bill.

"Thanks for bringing this to my attention," Kline said.

Other lawmakers consistently posted bills for around $130 to $150, which would make the plans extremely costly. Verizon and AT&T, for example, offer a smartphone plan with unlimited calling, unlimited texting and a comfortable 4GB of data for $110 plus taxes and fees.

House rules explicitly say that members must estimate their legislative usage and get reimbursed for those portions so that the state isn't paying the cost of personal or campaign calling, and those parameters lead some lawmakers to submit monthly bills for only $45 or $50. When senators submit their bills, they sign under penalty of perjury that they are making a claim for "necessary legislative business expenses."

Delvin said it was his understanding that the phone can be used for any type of calls. He also regularly received expenses of around $163 every month for phone and Internet service in his home office.

Many other lawmakers appeared to file bills that avoided disclosure rules. Both chambers require legislators to submit a receipt as proof when their bills go over $75. Sixteen lawmakers regularly submitted bills between $74 and $74.99.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, a Democrat, was among those who filed receipts right under the disclosure threshold. He submitted bills each month for $74.50 for his cellphone. But he also separately submitted monthly bills of $55 for a data plan, bringing his total to about $130 a month.

Tom said he got the $74.50 number by estimating how much of his calling was for legislative use and that it wasn't an effort to avoid the $75 disclosure rule. He also said he reported the data plan information separately because that's how he believed it was supposed to be done.

"They are two different things," Tom said.

Tom, who lives in the wealthy enclave of Medina, also got reimbursed $328.49 for an iPhone in 2011.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, introduced legislation this week in an effort to corral overall state spending on cellphone use. His proposal would place new rules on the circumstances under which state agencies can give out devices to their employees.

"The state shouldn't be providing you with a cellphone unless it's necessary for you to perform the functions of your job," Benton said.

He said the measure would not apply to lawmakers, since they get reimbursed and are not issued phones by the state.

A policy developed last year by the state Office of the Chief Information Officer encourages agencies to ensure that government-issued devices are necessary for business needs. It also offers guidance for agencies that want to give employees a monthly stipend to defray the cost of a personal phone instead of giving them a state-issued device.

That suggested stipend for voice and data is $40 a month for state workers.

Benton bills the state $150 each month for his cellphone.