The New York Times reports on how politicians from both parties are exploiting a loophole in the law to use campaign contributions for personal expenses.
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.
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