LAWRENCE COUNTY, Pa. (KDKA) -- A local state lawmaker has billed taxpayers $1.8 million in expenses during his many years in office.
But Pennsylvania Rep. Chris Sainato, a Lawrence County Democrat, told KDKA political editor Jon Delano that it was all perfectly legitimate.
Delano: Do you feel that you in any way have cheated the taxpayers?
Sainato: No way because I have followed the rules and the guidelines set by the House. In my 26 years, I've shown the people I represent that I am willing to work hard.
One of the longest-serving state House members, Sainato has represented the New Castle area since 1994.
Over those 26 years, he's chalked up a lot of expenses in public office. He was surprised when Spotlight PA and the Caucus tallied the figures until he realized they added in office rental expenses.
They found Sainato racked up $1.8 million in expenses, including nearly $650,000 in per diems, $175,000 in transportation costs and $162,000 in mileage reimbursements.
Delano: Does that sound right to you?
Sainato: It does because you are including our office rent and our office expenses. When you add 26 years' worth of expenses, it probably is correct.
Delano: Are you getting rich being a state representative?
Sainato: No, I don't think I'm getting rich. But when you say $1.8 million, that isn't really money that comes to me. That's expenses and it's over 26 years.
Sainato defends his expenses, noting the distance he travels -- 260 miles each way -- to Harrisburg and the cost of renting office space at $1,400 a month.
"It does include my rent. It includes the expenses to have a district office, and I think it's vital," he said. "I have one of the busiest offices in the state. It's a good location, and we deal with a lot of constituents through the office. So when you add 26 years of that, the numbers are going to be high."
In addition to their $90,000 annual salary, state lawmakers give themselves a flat per diem check, ranging from $178 to $200, to cover meals and housing when they are in Harrisburg or on the road on legislative business.
Sainato said his per diems usually cover his costs and are high because he has a perfect attendance record.
"I never missed a day during the pandemic. I was in Harrisburg. We were on the floor. Some members were able to vote remotely. I personally have never voted remotely. I think it was important that we were there in person," says Sainato.
Critics have long said actual expense vouchers should be submitted and reimbursed instead of flat per diems.
Delano: Do you think this is a system that needs to be changed?
Sainato: The system's been in place since I've been there. It's been almost 27 years, and the rates are set by the IRS.
"It usually equals out or comes close to it by the time you pay your hotel, pay your food expenses, and things like that," noted the Lawrence County lawmaker. "To keep track of all the records, especially if you're gone a lot, that is a lot of paperwork. So I've just followed the system that we have."
That system has remained in place no matter which party has control of the state Legislature.
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