Politics & Government

Golf courses, Dallas Cowboys: Report questions how Congress spends campaign money

Speaker Paul Ryan describes ‘draining the swamp’

House Speaker Paul Ryan explained 'draining the swamp' during a press briefing Thursday, and said congressional Republicans are ready to move forward with President-elect Donald Trump’s agenda.
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House Speaker Paul Ryan explained 'draining the swamp' during a press briefing Thursday, and said congressional Republicans are ready to move forward with President-elect Donald Trump’s agenda.

Sen. Johnny Isakson used political contributions for nearly $60,000 worth of events at an Oregon golf club.

Rep. Pete Sessions paid football’s Dallas Cowboys nearly $27,000 for a political event.

And Sen. Rand Paul spent more than $4,000 in political contributions when he visited London.

Watchdog groups and five former members of Congress will cite those cases and similar spending Friday as the Federal Election Commission closes a 60-day public comment period. The FEC is reviewing whether to tighten the rules for leadership PACs that critics say some lawmakers use for personal perks.

The commission for the first time is seriously considering banning members of Congress from using political contributions for personal matters.

The watchdogs found Isakson’s leadership PAC, 21st Century Majority Fund, spent $59,145 for “PAC events” at the Bandon Dunes golf club in Bandon, Oregon, in June, July and September 2018, yet 26.7 percent of the Georgia Republican’s leadership PAC spending in the 2018 cycle went to contributions.

Isakson’s office did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Sessions’ leadership PAC, PETE PAC, spent $36,337 at a St. Regis resort in Deer Valley, Utah in May 2018 — more than three times the $10,263 in receipts PETE PAC took in that month.

It also paid the Dallas Cowboys $27,000 for a “PAC event” in August 2018, while 33.6 percent of the PAC’s overall spending in the 2018 cycle went towards contributions. Sessions, a Texas Republican, lost his bid for re-election last week. His office did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In September, Paul’s RANDPAC or Reinventing a New Direction, spent more than $4,000 on meals, transportation, including $353 for “travel” paid to Historic Royal Palaces, which the report says manages the tourist destination the Tower of London, and $889 to the Mirror Room, which it described as an upscale hotel restaurant.

It said it found “no discernible connection between Sen. Paul’s spending in London and any officeholder duties or candidate expenses” and no evidence that the London trip was a fundraiser. It noted that 14 percent of RANDPAC’s spending in the 2018 cycle went toward contributions.

Paul’s office said the expenses were related to fundraisers that the Kentucky Republican held in London. The campaign provided McClatchy with copies of invites to London fundraising events.

“This is the definition of fake news, as we have said over and over that these were fundraising expenses for multiple events with dozens of donors that made nearly $80,000 for RANDPAC,” Paul spokeswoman Kelsey Cooper said. “Every charity and political cause has fundraising expenses and to characterize them as anything else is a total lie.”

The FEC’s initiative to curb such spending was spurred by a July report from the watchdog groups that allege that a number of office holders and candidates routinely use fundraising for leadership political action committees to pay for golf outings, sports events and expensive dinners. Paul’s spending at restaurants in Italy and Malta in 2017 was mentioned in the July report.

Since its initial report, the spending has continued, said Brendan Fischer, director of the federal reform program at the Campaign Legal Center.

“This speaks to the importance of the FEC clarifying the rule,” Fischer said. “In the absence of guidance from the FEC, lawmakers feel they have the freedom to use leadership PACs as slush funds.”

Many members of Congress typically have two fundraising accounts: A campaign account and what is known as a leadership PAC. There is already a personal use ban on campaign accounts, but there is no stated ban on personal spending from leadership PACs.

If the FEC sides with the watchdogs, it would treat leadership PAC spending as similar to campaign account spending, meaning increased scrutiny of leadership PAC expenses.

Leadership PACs were first permitted in 1978 to allow members of Congress to donate money to other political campaigns and help them attain leadership positions. Campaign Legal Center and Issue One, the nonpartisan watchdog agencies, found candidates only used an average of 45 percent of leadership PAC funds for that purpose over the last three election cycles.

In a draft of its letter to the FEC, obtained by McClatchy, the groups say that between April 1 and Sept. 30, leadership PACs spent at least $124,162 at the luxury Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, $160,809 at St. Regis resorts, $53,165 at Ritz-Carlton hotels, $46,121 at the Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant near the U.S. Capitol and $19,760 at Disney properties.

The letter also says that after Rep. Joe Crowley, D-New York lost his primary in June, his leadership PAC’s spending changed. Contributions to candidates had made up a majority of the PAC’s spending, but in July, it made no contributions to other candidates or committees.

It did pay $17,768 to the New York Racing Association for “tickets for fundraising event & catering.” Over the remainder of the 2018 campaign, it made $7,223 in contributions, though also reported $1,685 for “catering” at the Saratoga Racetrack plus $6,450 for hotels and meals in Saratoga Springs, New York.

A new FEC rule would not be retroactive. The FEC considers purchases for entertainment, household food items, clothing, funeral expenses, tuition payments, investment expenses, salary payments to a family member and dues or fees to places such as country clubs as automatic personal uses. Other uses, such as meals, travel, vehicle or legal expenses are considered on a case-by-case basis.

The groups argue that the risk of misusing leadership PAC contributions is greater because the leadership PACs are subject to higher contribution limits than campaign committees.

William Douglas and Andrea Drusch contributed to this report.
Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark