Many lawmakers use campaign funds in ways that seem to have little to do with seeking reelection.
Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo has dipped into her campaign fund to buy more than $2,000 in gifts for her good friend and fellow Californian, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, from swank stores such as Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) has dropped nearly $3,400 in campaign cash servicing his BMW in Alexandria, Virginia.
Other lawmakers have used their war chests for European travels, upgrade airline seats and access the American Airlines Admirals Club in airports across the country. In one case, a retired member of Congress with money left in his account used the cash to pay his wife roughly $20,000 since Election Day. Disgraced former Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) resigned after a firestorm of criticism over his use of campaign dollars to underwrite a lavish lifestyle, among other alleged misdeeds. But the truth is, while Schock was by all accounts an extreme case, he is far from the exception. I[n] fact, elected officials routinely tap their campaign accounts to pay for things that appear to have little to do with seeking another term in Congress, according to a POLITICO review of campaign documents.
Indeed, donor dollars can, at times, resemble a slush fund. And experts say the reason is because lawmakers have almost complete latitude to decide what constitutes a campaign expense.
“The House Ethics Committee typically gives (members of Congress) a wide berth in defining what is considered campaign or officially connected activities,” said Kenneth Gross, a veteran ethics and election lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. “However, under House and [Federal Election Commission] rules, personal use of campaign funds is strictly prohibited.”
In the wake of revelations that Schock allegedly misrepresented his congressional expenses by tens of thousands of dollars, Michigan Republican Rep. Candice Miller’s House Administration Committee is reviewing internal procedures and controls on the spending of taxpayer dollars. A grand jury is currently hearing testimony related to Schock’s alleged misspending of taxpayer dollars. But unlike official expenditures, campaign expenditures are barely monitored. Case in point: Schock publicly admitted to several errors on FEC reports and promised to file amendments. More than a month after resigning, the Illinois Republican still has not filed any corrected records.
Members of Congress have almost total discretion to determine what is a legitimate campaign expense. Here are some of the more unusual ways they have used donor dollars:
- Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Ca.): Gifts for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi from swank stores such as Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, more than $2,000.
- Rep. Bob Brady (D-Pa.): Christmas gifts from Capital Grille, upwards of $10,000 per year.
- Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas): Servicing his BMW in Alexandria, Virginia, nearly $3,400.
- Sen. John Cornyn, (R-Texas): “Beverages for meal” while on a congressional delegation trip to South Africa, $336.
- Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.): 18 trips to Smoothie King since June 2014, $20.39 on six occasions.
- Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.): Regular visits to Tune Inn, a dive bar on Pennsylvania Avenue, more than $1,000 for over 20 trips since Sept. 2013.
- Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas): Three expenditures at the Andaz Hotel in London in November and December, more than $5,400.
- Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas): Gifts for his D.C. and district staff, roughly $3,000.
- Retired Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Ca.): Money left in campaign post-retirement in January, $250,000.
Paying for gifts is one of the unique ways that members of Congress use their campaign accounts. Most corporations wouldn’t allow the boss to withdraw thousands of dollars from business coffers without any oversight to hand out cash gifts to employees, yet that’s essentially what Rep. Gene Green does. At the end of each year, the Texas Democrat takes roughly $3,000 from his reelection fund and gives each staffer in his Washington and district offices $200 as a holiday present.
“I don’t buy gifts,” Green said. “I give, typically, [it] started out at $100 and now I give the staff whether D.C. staff or district staff $200 at Christmas.”
Dozens of members of Congress reward people who work on their reelection campaigns. Rep. Robert Brady, a powerful Democrat from Philadelphia, shells out more than $10,000 every year at Capital Grille, buying Christmas gifts for campaign aides. He hasn’t won with less than 74 percent of the vote since he was first elected in 1998.
“Since members run for reelection every two years, it’s important to say ‘thank you’ to the men and women who volunteer so much of their time and energy to his campaigns,” said Stanley V. White, Brady’s chief of staff. “These gifts were for political activists and ward leaders who are integral to Congressman Brady’s reelection efforts.”
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) has gone on a shopping spree at Vineyard Vines, the Connecticut-based preppy clothing company — to the tune of $12,295 in the past five months. He likes to buy gifts at the beginning of each session of Congress for members of his vote-counting team, a spokesman said. Eshoo, who also has not faced a serious reelection threat in two decades, says she is “grateful to colleagues and constituents who support me in my reelection efforts.”
“I tend to express my appreciation with a token of thanks and to remember them on birthdays and holidays,” Eshoo said in an interview. “Why give to the leader? Why have I done that for the leader, amongst others? No one has been more consistently thoughtful or actively supportive than she has been. I always think a ‘thank you’ should be as memorable as the kindness that prompted it, and they carry memorable items.”
Eshoo said she couldn’t recall what she has bought for Pelosi, but said she believes she’s given the Democratic leader scarves.
Other lawmakers have tapped their campaign kitties to travel abroad.
Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert represents a district on the eastern border of Texas, but one of his campaign line items last year was $272 for a meeting room at the Intercontinental Victoria Island in Lagos, Nigeria. In three expenditures in November and December, Gohmert paid more than $5,400 at the Andaz Hotel in London. He also spent time in Oxford at the Old Bank Hotel. Gohmert’s spokesman, Kimberly Willingham, said Gohmert was giving political speeches in England, but did not respond to questions about whom Gohmert addressed. She suggested POLITICO write an “unbiased article about a congressman saving taxpayers significant amounts of money by legally using funds he has raised instead of taxpayer funds.”
Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican who is also from Texas, spent $336 for “beverages for meal” while on a congressional delegation trip to South Africa. Cornyn bought the drinks at La Combe in Cape Town, which is located on an organic wine estate and considered one of the top restaurants in the world. Cornyn’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), whose district includes the suburbs Chicago, went to the Tango Hotel Roma and Villa Tucolana Roma last year, running up a bill of more than $750. A spokesman said the congressman was in Rome for the International Catholic Legislators Network conference.
Dublin, Ireland, also appeared on campaign disclosure forms. In 2013, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) had a “political” meal at The Merrion Hotel there that cost $112. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) also visited Dublin on the campaign dime in both 2011 and 2012, shelling out thousands of dollars for stays at the Shelbourne Meridien and the Westbury Hotel, and the Europa Hotel in Belfast. Neal’s office said he spoke at the Ireland-U.S. Council’s annual meeting and the annual political conference of Sinn Féin.
Dining in D.C.
Other politicians have favorite dining spots in Washington that they frequent on the campaign dime. Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) has gone to Smoothie King in D.C. and Missouri more than a dozen times since June. Josh Haynes, his chief of staff, says Smith “doesn’t drink coffee, and when he meets in the morning with elected officials, donors or staff they oftentimes will get a smoothie.” However, during his campaign last year, Smith set a goal of having coffee with every member of Congress by the end of this term.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), meanwhile, is a regular at Tune Inn, a dive bar blocks away from the Capitol. His campaign has foot the bill for meals there more than 20 times since September 2013, totaling more than $1,000. Sometimes the bill is as small as $20, other times $130. Grijalva’s spokesman provided receipts that show that his political director, Jose Miranda, was reimbursed for the political meals, not the congressman.
Cuellar’s office, meanwhile, says it’s perfectly permissible for his campaign to pay for repairs on his BMW in Washington. His political aide Colin Strother said he drives the vehicle 90 percent of the time for political work, including to and from the Capitol, to events on K Street and to the airport when he flies home to Laredo.
“Using campaign funds for things like maintenance and repair of a vehicle used for campaign purposes is completely legal,” Strother said.
Buck McKeon’s campaign spending is perhaps the most eye-popping — because he’s not even in Congress anymore. The California Republican retired from the House in January after more than two decades with more than a quarter of a million dollars left in his campaign coffers. He’s used the money to pay his wife about $20,000 since Election Day. Patricia McKeon worked for the congressman for years without pay, the ex-congressman said in an interview, and she’s now helping him close out his campaign operation.
“If you average that all out over the 22 years, it’s a lot less than the indication,” the ex-congressman asserted. “People think we paid her that much forever,” he added, but the fact is “she worked for years for free.”
SOURCE: Politico, May 1st, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/05/congress-campaign-finance-ethics-s...