The senator "has a very strict policy of not accepting gifts from anyone, big or small," Sweeney's spokesman, Chris Donnelly, said in a statement. "He insists on paying for any meals or other expenses incurred during these meetings so that there will not even be the slightest hint of anything inappropriate."
U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews last month came under fire over reports that he spent at least $9,000 to attend a donor's wedding with his family in Scotland, among other expenses. Although maintaining he had followed the law, the Camden County congressman said he would reimburse his campaign account and then redirect the money to homeless veterans.
Both state and federal rules allow candidates considerable discretion in how they spend their money. The New Jersey Election Law Commission permits spending for meals and entertainment as long as it has a campaign purpose, but does not detail rules.
Campaign funds help some candidates pay for a certain lifestyle, said Bill Schluter, chairman of the State Ethics Commission, which does not have oversight over campaign spending.
"I'm not going to say [Sweeney is] doing anything illegal, but he's taking advantage of spreading that largesse around and benefiting from it politically," said Schluter, a former Republican legislator who has pushed for stronger ethics laws.
Having the authority to advance or kill bills in the Senate - and until last December serving as the freeholder director of Gloucester County - has put Sweeney, a union ironworker, in a position to amass hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from contractors, unions, and special interests.
Some of Sweeney's expenses are for large events.
On Jan. 27, 2011, he spent $2,851.59 from his Senate account at the Prime Rib in Washington, when legislators and lobbyists attended the annual state Chamber of Commerce party in the nation's capital. Sweeney paid $765.43 for cigars the day earlier from his freeholder primary account.
On Jan. 28, 2010, he spent $6,106.86 at the Prime Rib for the same event, paying an additional $966.85 for cigars the day before from his Senate fund.
And at last year's League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City, he spent $6,287.52 from his Senate fund at the Old Homestead Steakhouse at the Borgata.
It's typical for public officials to make occasional large expenditures for fund-raisers or other political events.
Sweeney's expenses stand out as a whole because he dines so frequently at the same handful of restaurants on his home turf, spending from $100 to $500 at a time. Sources say he often goes out with political associates from his days as freeholder, though Sweeney is not required to report with whom he meets.
In one recent October week that is typical of Sweeney's spending, he paid $310.30 at Nino Gervasi's Ristorante Italiano on Monday; $104.43 at Charlie Brown's Steakhouse and $160.85 at Amarone Ristorante on Wednesday; $425.01 at Charlie Brown's on Thursday; $218.23 at Charlie Brown's on Friday; and $148.93 at Filomena's on Saturday. He is a regular at all but Amarone Ristorante, the only restaurant of that group not in Gloucester County.
"The Senate president lives in South Jersey, so it would only make sense that many of these events are located there," Donnelly said. "This allows him to stay near his district so that he can attend as many functions and events in his capacity as a legislator as possible."
Sweeney's counterpart in the Assembly, Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), spent about $46,000 on 90 similar expenses in the last two years.
In 2008 and 2009, Sen. Richard "Dick" Codey (D., Essex), Sweeney's predecessor as Senate president, spent $210,000 on the occasional meal and catered food - a total that includes room rentals for large-scale fund-raisers. He billed for such expenses about two dozen times.
Camden County Democrat Joseph J. Roberts Jr., Oliver's predecessor as speaker, spent about $42,000 on meals and catered fund-raisers in his last two years on the job, in 2008 and 2009.
One reason that Sweeney has more cash to spend than most other lawmakers is that he was a dual officeholder for many years.
The Inquirer reported six weeks ago that Sweeney was still spending money from his Gloucester County freeholder primary election account months after he left the office. At the time, Sweeney said he was planning to close out the account by the end of 2011.
Campaign records don't detail with whom Sweeney met, but Donnelly offered explanations for some of this year's expenses:
The $573.38 expense at Barclay Prime in Philadelphia, a Stephen Starr steak house in Rittenhouse Square, was a meeting with supporters after a Saturday evening fund-raiser.
The bill for $433.56 at Butcher & Singer in Philadelphia, also a Center City steak house, was for a Saturday meeting with supporters after a conference in which he was a keynote speaker.
The $157.33 bill at Nino Gervasi's in Paulsboro, typical of the types of expenses Sweeney files, was for a meeting with elected officials to discuss how campaigns were going.
He also spent $1,347.46 on two trips to Varsity Liquors days before being sworn in as Senate president in January 2010. That was for an event Sweeney hosted at Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion in Princeton, while he was acting governor, according to Donnelly.
"He did not feel it would be appropriate to use taxpayer dollars for this event, so none were used," Donnelly said.
Contact staff writer Maya Rao
at 609-989-8990, email@example.com, or on Twitter @Mrao_Inquirer.