Washington watchdogs call out leadership PACs for campaign finance abuse

Take the money and run
PACs go far beyond political activities, a new report says.

Political action committees are going far beyond political activities, subsidizing “lavish lifestyles” of federal officeholders, according to a new report by a pair of Washington D.C. watchdog groups.

The “All Expenses Still Paid” report details how members of Congress routinely use leadership PACs to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on private jets, golf, expensive meals, and luxury hotel accommodations instead of their intended use, supporting political allies. The report was co-authored by nonpartisan political reform groups Issue One and the Campaign Legal Center (CLC).

“Leadership PACs are a decades-long ethics scandal in Congress that should outrage every American,” Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee said in a news release. “Members of Congress should embrace bipartisan legislation to curb the abuses of leadership PACs.”

The report identified leadership PACs that spent, in just the final three months of 2018: $113,236 at a five-star resort in Georgia, $82,408 for private jets, and $10,750 at a Mardi Gras celebration; all while donations to other candidates appeared to take a back seat.

Other spending identified in the report included:

— The leadership PAC for Rep. Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, spending $23,130 for tickets to the South Beach Food & Wine Festival, “a national, star-studded, five-day destination event showcasing the talents of the world’s most renowned wine and spirits producers, chefs and culinary personalities”

— Rep. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat and Rep. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, using their leadership PACs to buy thousands of dollars in tickets to events at Washington’s Capital One Arena.

— The leadership PAC of Utah Republican Sen. paying for dues at the posh Alta Club in Salt Lake City, a possible direct violation of the Federal Election Commission’s ban on using campaign funds for personal use.

The 2019 report is an update to last year’s, which claimed less than 50 percent of overall leadership PAC spending in recent years “has actually gone toward the purposes originally approved by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) — namely, contributions to candidates and political groups.”

That report cited Democrats former Sen. Bill Nelson and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz for spending tens of thousands of leadership PAC dollars on events at Walt Disney World.

It’s unclear where the FEC stands on whether this leadership PAC spending violates federal laws prohibiting personal use of campaign dollars; similarly to the Tampa Bay Times/WTSP Zombie Campaign investigation, the Issue One/CLC report reveals another giant blind spot in FEC enforcement.

“The FEC’s failure to address the misuse of leadership PAC funds has allowed more politicians to exploit the system,” said CLC Federal Reform Director Brendan Fischer. “We are long past due for a solution that would stop politicians from using leadership PACs as personal slush funds to pay for golf club memberships and trips to Vegas.”

Issue One identifies itself as a “cross-partisan political reform group,” focused on increasing transparency, strengthening ethics and accountability, and reducing the influence of big money in politics. A bipartisan coalition of more than 200 former members of Congress, the Cabinet and governorships support the mission.

The Campaign Legal Center (“CLC”) identifies itself as an “adamantly nonpartisan” organization focused on using litigation, policy analysis and public education “to protect and strengthen the U.S. democratic process across all levels of government,” including issues regarding campaign finance, voting rights, redistricting and ethics.

Noah Pransky

Noah Pransky is a multiple award-winning investigative reporter, most recently with the CBS affiliate in Tampa. He’s uncovered major stories such as uncovering backroom deals in the Tampa Bay Rays stadium and other political investigations. Pransky also ran a blog called Shadow of the Stadium, giving readers a deep dive into the details of potential financial deals and other happenings involving the Tampa Bay- area sports business.


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