Money In Politics -Slush Funds
WASHINGTON — Henry Bonilla, a Texas Republican and former member of Congress, has tapped into his political piggy bank to fly around the United States, eat at some of San Antonio’s finest restaurants and to cover bills at luxury hotels like The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla.
Former Representative Charles H. Taylor has used his leftover political account to host an annual Christmas party at a resort near his North Carolina home.
And friends of John P. Murtha, the once-powerful House military appropriator who died this year, spent much of the balance in his political account earlier this year to hold a goodbye tribute dinner at the Army Navy Country Club in his honor.
This spending on meals and luxury hotel stays reflects a little-known loophole in campaign finance laws, one that will likely draw scrutiny as a remarkable wave of lawmakers leave in retirement or in defeat: Former members are largely free to spend the money left over in their political action committees however they choose.
At least 66 retiring, recently departed or defeated lawmakers are affiliated with such accounts, according to Federal Election Commission records. They had a combined total balance of approximately $2.8 million in cash on hand as of last month. These accounts are informally known as leadership PACs. As distinguished from the accounts politicians use to mount their own campaigns, these are intended as a way for politicians to win friends by donating money to other candidates and political parties.
Among current lawmakers leaving office in January, retiring Representative Bill Delahunt, Democrat of Massachusetts, has the largest in cash reserves, as he had squirreled away nearly $1 million in his leadership PAC as of the end of September.
That balance could come in handy as he is considering, among other options, becoming a lobbyist upon his retirement. Many former lawmakers who become lobbyists use the balance in their leadership PACs to give money to former House and Senate colleagues as a way to curry favor for their new clients, another use of the money that is allowed under the law.
Mr. Delahunt’s chief of staff said Friday that the reserve in his PAC would not be used for personal purposes.
Traditional campaign funds — those members use for their own bids — are subject to restrictions. But there are no explicit limits on the leadership PACs, which are filled most typically by donations from lobbyists, corporate executives and unions. The Federal Election Commission — long criticized for its reluctance to rein in abuses — has itself called this a “growing problem” and pushed to tighten the rules.
“Donors give to leadership PACs because they support the political agenda of the lawmaker running it, not under any expectation that this will turn into a personal bank account,” said Marty Meehan, a former House member who supports a restriction that would ban the personal use of leadership PAC funds.
The potential for abuse has grown markedly over the last decade or so as leadership PACs — which were first created by just a handful of lawmakers seeking leadership posts or higher office — have become a common accoutrement in Washington. As of this fall, there were nearly 400 active leadership PACs, most of them associated with sitting members of Congress or presidential aspirants. Among those departing with large balances are Mr. Delahunt; Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana; Senator Blanche Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas; and Representative Rick Boucher, Democrat of Virginia.
A spokesman for Mr. Bayh said that the leftover funds would be used as intended by donors.
“In the years ahead, you can expect him to continue to vigorously support like-minded Democratic candidates in Indiana and around the country,” said Brian Weiss, Mr. Bayh’s spokesman.
A review by The New York Times of several dozen federal leadership PACs operated by lawmakers who left office in the last four years found no instances in which politicians actually wrote large checks to themselves. But a significant number no longer allocate a major share of their spending to support other political candidates, according to the disclosure reports, which must be filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Mr. Bonilla, for example, who left the House in 2007, has donated $2,025 to other candidates in the last two years from his American Dream PAC, which Mr. Bonilla said in an interview this week was first set up to encourage the election of more Hispanic candidates to Congress.
Instead, Mr. Bonilla has spent more than $3,300 at the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican hangout in Washington, and $10,000 more on airfare, hotels, rental cars, restaurants, office supplies, telephone bills, flowers and computer equipment, the records show. He did not raise any money during the last two years, although he helped restore the balance in his leadership PAC by donating $5,000 from his personal campaign account, the maximum allowed each year under the law.
Mr. Taylor, who also left the House in 2007, gave just $690 from his leadership PAC to candidates over the last two years, as of the most recent report filed in October. But he has spent nearly $40,000 at the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa in Asheville, N.C.
Some former mayors and governors have their own federal leadership PACs, like Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has not given any money to candidates in the last two years, but has spent more than $10,000 on limousine services; and Janet Napolitano, who currently serves as homeland security secretary, who turned over nearly $90,000 to a nonprofit group that used the money, in part, to pay a salary to the former co-chairman of the political action committee she started while serving as Arizona’s governor, federal records show.
Many of the former lawmakers have used their leadership PACs in a way that may benefit lobbying outfits they have joined, or former campaign aides or staff members, like former Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi.
Mr. Lott, for example, has paid $40,000 in this election cycle to Principal Strategies Group, a consulting firm run by Bret Boyles, his former chief of staff, who now also works as a colleague of his at the lobbying firm Patton Boggs.
Among the contributions that Mr. Lott’s PAC, the New Republican Majority Fund, has made are donations to more than a dozen prominent House and Senate Republicans whom he might need to contact on behalf of his many lobbying clients, such as Northrop Grumman, the military contractor; Chevron, the energy giant; and Citigroup.
Each of the former lawmakers, in interviews, offered explanations for the spending, noting that all of these expenditures were related to political activity, so they would be allowed even if there was an explicit ban on the personal use of leadership PAC funds. Mr. Lott, who has continued to raise money for his leadership PAC since leaving office, rejected any suggestion that the contributions by his PAC were an extension of his lobbying work.
“It is natural to assume that, but that is not my primary focus,” Mr. Lott said. “These are people I know, support, are friends, who I think will be good for the country.”
Mr. Bonilla said the travel and meals he paid for with his PAC were all tied to political events he has attended in the last two years, even though his own PAC had not raised any money and given out very little.
Mr. Taylor said that his Christmas parties each year were part holiday celebration, part political events. And representatives for Mr. Murtha said that the dinner held in his honor with money from his PAC was also a fund-raising event for a foundation his family is setting up in Mr. Murtha’s name, meaning the dinner was a charitable cause.
Paul S. Ryan, F.E.C. program director at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, said that none of the payments appeared to violate the law. But he still believes the rules should be changed to tighten restrictions on how the money can be used.
“Plenty of people would like to be riding in limos, flying to events and staying in nice hotels, or throwing a big Christmas bash. But they just don’t have the means to do so,” he said. “These leadership PACs allow these former politicians to continue to live that kind of a lifestyle for years after leaving Congress.”
Last Updated (Tuesday, 16 November 2010 18:29)