By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; A02
So this must be what Michael Steele meant when he promised an "off the hook" PR campaign for the Republican National Committee.
In its February financial report filed with the Federal Election Commission, the RNC itemized its disbursements for the month, including:
$53.99 to Staples in Bismarck, N.D., for office supplies.
$123.17 to the Courtyard hotel in Lansing, Mich., for lodging.
$282.01 to Hertz in Dallas for car rental.
$1,946.25 to Voyeur in West Hollywood for, uh, meals.
Meals, huh? And quite a menu they have at Voyeur, according to write-ups in the Los Angeles Times about the new club:
"Impromptu bondage and S&M 'scenes' being played out on an elevated platform by scantily clad performers throughout the night."
Chairs "detailed with the metal hardware and bondage straps of leather fetishists. . . . One with a harness that designer Ted Nemeth calls the Restraint chair."
"One female performer with a horse's bit in her mouth was being strapped to the wall by another."
"The dark, leather-heavy interior is reminiscent of the masked orgy scene" from the movie "Eyes Wide Shut."
"There is also a heavy net suspended above the club's lounge area where performers writhe above the heads of club-goers. Even more provocative scenes are played out in an enclosed glass booth area adjacent to the club's dance floor area."
And Al Gore got in trouble for going to a Buddhist temple?
Now, it's true that Steele promised to reach out to young voters in "urban-suburban hip-hop settings." But for a political organization relying on a base of religious conservatives and family-values types, the Voyeur line item would seem to risk getting Republicans branded "the party of no-no." Tying up the Senate is one thing, but doing party business where women tie one another up is quite different.
Steele's foray into political masochism began when the Daily Caller noticed the Voyeur line item in the FEC report. Writing about the RNC chairman's preference for private jets, the story noted: "Once on the ground, FEC filings suggest, Steele travels in style. A February RNC trip to California, for example, included a $9,099 stop at the Beverly Hills Hotel, $6,596 dropped at the nearby Four Seasons, and $1,946.25 at Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex."
The Democratic National Committee added to the pain: "Risque National Committee," it dubbed its rival. Huffington Post went with "The Party of YES!"
The folks at the RNC, more accustomed to bond issues than bondage issues, lashed out. "The story willfully and erroneously suggests that the expenditure in question was one belonging to the chairman," the party complained of the Daily Caller report. "The chairman was never at the location in question" and "had no knowledge of the expenditure." It was, rather, the work of a "non-committee staffer" who was later identified as Erik Brown, a direct-mail executive from Orange County who has been active with the Young (and evidently restless) Republicans.
This wasn't the first time Steele found himself tied to a story involving Brown and leather -- although the other one was about pigskin. On Oct. 26, Brown sent a tweet that said: "Enjoying the football game with RNC Chairman Michael Steele. (Eagles vs Redskins at FedEx Field)."
It was no small irony that the RNC had been collared by the Daily Caller, a Web site started by the conservative commentator Tucker Carlson. It was the second prominent instance of intramural sniping among conservatives in recent days. Blogger Debbie Schlussel attacked Sean Hannity and Ollie North over a charity they work with, alleging that the Freedom Alliance "spent millions on cronies and expenses." The charity denied the allegations, but Schlussel's reports led Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to file a complaint Monday with the Federal Trade Commission. It alleged that Hannity engaged in "illegal and deceptive marketing practices" by saying that all money from tickets to "Freedom Concerts" went to children of service members who were killed or wounded.
The scuffle over Hannity's charity was easily dominated by news of Steele's S&M disbursement. Voyeur's Web site apparently crashed from the increase in traffic, so those hunting for news about the club had to settle for reviews on Yelp.com: " . . . two girls simulating oral sex in a glass case. Really understated elegance here. . . . Lindsay Lohan was at our table at one point."
Yet even without whips and chains, Steele could have trouble explaining other items on the RNC's expense list: $17,514 for private aircraft and $12,691 for limousines for the RNC in February.
The chairman has been in trouble on and off since he took over the RNC 14 months ago, usually for using phrases such as "Honest Injun" and "flipping the bird." His spending has been an issue since his first days on the job, when he dropped $18,500 to redecorate his office, which he found "way too male for me."
He changed the furniture, but the RNC's leather fetish remained.