EMBEZZLEMENT CASE

House Republicans' Audit Shows Treasurer Stole at Least $800,000

Rep. John A. Boehner said the cost of the probe will be worth it.
Rep. John A. Boehner said the cost of the probe will be worth it. (Alex Wong - Getty Images)
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By Paul Kane and Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer and washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

House Republicans yesterday accused their former campaign treasurer of embezzling at least $725,000 in a scheme that federal investigators say involved using the money to cover major home renovations and mortgage payments, and marked the biggest case of political fraud in a generation.

A four-month forensic audit of the National Republican Congressional Committee's books asserted that Christopher J. Ward, who worked in the NRCC's accounting office for more than 12 years, also took $28,000 that should have gone to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Ward had already been accused by other Republican lawmakers of misappropriating $64,000 from six political action committees and reelection committees, bringing his total alleged embezzlement to more than $810,000.

But Republicans acknowledged that their internal audit may not have reflected the totality of the embezzlement, because NRCC bank records went back only to 2001 and because auditors lacked access to Ward's personal bank accounts, which the FBI has been reviewing. They said the overall amount of money taken could be far greater than their current estimate.

"We'll never know the full extent," Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the NRCC chairman, told reporters.

Ward is under FBI investigation for theft and money laundering, according to Justice Department documents filed last week seeking the forfeiture of his Bethesda home. Those documents accused him of taking "more than $500,000" and using about $200,000 for home renovations. The NRCC is cooperating with the FBI in the investigation.

Ward's attorney declined to comment yesterday.

Once considered the gold standard among bookkeepers for Republican political operations -- he was treasurer for at least 83 GOP committees over the past decade -- Ward came under scrutiny in late January when lawmakers demanded to meet outside auditors who had purportedly performed annual audits of the NRCC.

He acknowledged that no audits had been performed, lawmakers said. The committee asked the FBI to investigate when it realized Ward's forged audits from the previous five years had been used to secure multimillion-dollar loans in recent election years.

The investigation came during a period of political peril for House Republicans, as they lost three straight special elections in districts they had held for decades. At the end of April, the NRCC trailed its Democratic counterpart by a 7-to-1 ratio in cash on hand.

Cole said the cost of the forensic audit, overseen by the law firm Covington & Burling and the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, will soon hit $600,000. An additional $300,000 has been spent on beefing up the accounting staff at the NRCC.

The committee could also face a fine from the Federal Election Commission, which last year issued guidelines telling political committees that lax oversight of treasurers would result in hefty penalties.

Republicans hope to recoup some of the lost cash through insurance claims, and party leaders yesterday sought to put the best face they could on the situation.


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