Watchdogs say the spending by outgoing lawmakers raises questions about whether it is an appropriate use of donors’ money.
After announcing plans to leave the House of Representatives, Florida Democrat Robert Wexler went on to spend more than $340,000 of his campaign funds on staff bonuses, airline tickets and other expenses.
Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich , meanwhile, announced his retirement plans in January 2009, but spent more than $300,000 in campaign cash last year, paying for everything from catering to car maintenance.
Federal law bars members of Congress from using donors’ contributions to their main campaign accounts for personal expenses. But it allows lawmakers broad latitude on other expenses, from restaurant bills, parking fees and flowers, if the spending is related to official or political duties.
Watchdogs, such as Sheila Krumholz of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, say the spending by outgoing lawmakers raises questions about whether it is an appropriate use of donors’ money.
“They are going to nice restaurants and spending more money on more things that are not strictly campaign expenses,” said Krumholz, whose organization tracks money in politics. “Some of these expenditures are tantamount to personal use.”
Overall, lawmakers who have resigned from the current Congress or announced plans to retire after the November election have a total of $39 million left in their campaign accounts, a USA Today analysis shows.
Wexler, who left Congress in January to become president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, did not return telephone calls. Eric Johnson, his former chief of staff, said the spending, which included more than $94,000 in bonuses to three staffers, was appropriate.
Wexler “gave bonuses to people who had been with him for 14 years,” he said.
Johnson and his political consulting firm received $39,000 during the last three months of 2009, records show. Two other Wexler aides received more than $20,000 each. “These were not extravagant bonuses,” Johnson said. Wexler “felt that this was fair and appropriate compensation for work people had done to get him elected.”
USA Today examined the fundraising accounts of lawmakers who have announced retirement plans and found them continuing to spend campaign money:
• Voinovich returned more than $440,000 in campaign contributions since announcing retirement plans, but he also spent more than $300,000 on other expenses, including catering, airfare and management consultant fees. His most recent campaign filings include payments of $930 for “historic calendar gifts” and $253.87 to a Ford dealership in suburban Cleveland for auto maintenance.
Voinovich spokeswoman Jennifer Scoggins said the spending is allowed. “All officeholders — whether they are running or not — have expenses that are not covered by officials funds, but are officially connected,” she said in an e-mail.
• After Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning’s retirement announcement in July 2009, his campaign paid for nearly $400 meals at the U.S. Senate restaurant and auto lease payments of more than $9,500.
Bunning’s daughter Amy Towles, the campaign’s treasurer, received more than $16,400 in payments in the months following the retirement announcement. The Republican leaves office in January 2011.
Bunning’s spokesman Mike Reynard said “these are costs that are incurred because of his job.” He also said the senator follows federal election rules “to the letter of the law.”
• Former senator Mel Martinez spent more than $116,000 on consultants, airline fares, meals and other expenses after announcing plans in December 2008 to leave Congress, including a bill of more than $2,500 at a Washington sports bar.
He also refunded more than $530,000 in contributions to individuals. The Florida Republican left office in September 2009 and now is a partner with DLA Piper, a law and lobbying firm. He did not return telephone calls.
Hank Bennett, an Oklahoma banker, donated $250 to Wexler in May 2009. He said he doesn’t mind how Wexler spends it “as long as he continues to work toward things I believe in.”
|CAMPAIGN CASH ON HAND|
|Lawmakers from the current Congress who have resigned or announced retirement plans had a combined $39 million in leftover donations in their campaign accounts as of Dec. 31, 2009, the most recent data available.
Note: Three lawmakers appointed to Congress in 2009 (Sens. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., George LeMieux, R-Fla., and former Sen. Paul Kirk, D-Mass.) do not have campaign accounts. Kaufman and LeMieux will not seek re-election; Kirk has resigned.
Via USA Today