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Money intended to help candidates often ends up funding PACs themselves

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By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Minority Leader John A. Boehner has collected more than $1.4 million from business interests this election cycle for a committee he says he created to help fellow Republican lawmakers. But Boehner's committee has spent only about a third of its money helping other candidates.

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About two-thirds of its expenditures have gone instead to costs the committee describes as necessary to raise money, including fine meals and trips to luxurious resorts where the congressman mingles with corporate-directed groups and lobbyists. Boehner (Ohio) has spent more than $182,000 through the committee on frequent travel with donors to Florida and similar vacation spots, according to Federal Election Commission records, including $70,403 at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples and more than $30,000 at Disney Resort Destinations.

As it turns out, Boehner's use of funds collected for others by his "leadership PAC," or political action committee, is more the rule than the exception among Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Most leadership PACs have given away less than 40 percent of their expenditures this cycle, even though they typically say they are collecting and bundling donations for others, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics at the request of The Washington Post.

Offering perks

Instead, the PACs spend the bulk of their money funding their own operations, spending sizeable sums on fundraisers that also offer sweet perquisites for members and their aides. The PACs have financed distant resort stays and expensive meals for members in New York, Miami, Beverly Hills and elsewhere and paid for private jets, liquor, flowers, limousines, ski lift and baseball tickets, and even horse track visits, according to tallies submitted monthly to the FEC.

Lawmakers say luxurious settings and donor perks add to the appeal of fundraising events, and Boehner spokesman Don Seymour said the congressman's resort trips were all "overhead costs for fundraisers that ultimately benefit Republican campaigns."

The committee's contributors in January 2009, when Boehner pulled in $223,000 at a Naples golfing fundraiser, were from the insurance, tobacco, pesticide, health-care and investment industries, among others.

Last year, the six-member FEC unanimously questioned the unbridled use of such funds. Lawmakers are generally barred from converting campaign donations to personal use, but leadership PAC receipts effectively have no such prohibition.

Since 1978, when Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and his supporters gained FEC approval for the first leadership PAC, 405 current lawmakers have followed suit. Their collective revenues have risen 13-fold over two decades, reaching $46 million in the 2008 cycle.

Resorts

Many leadership PACs spend heavily on Washington-based consultants, accountants and lawyers. But fundraisers held at beach and ski resorts are among the most common winter expenditures. This cycle, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has spent $52,700 on travel with donors to resorts; his committee also spent $9,800 on entertainment tickets and a limousine company. Less than half of its expenditures went to other candidates, the center's tally shows.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), whose leadership PAC raised $2.1 million, more than any other on Capitol Hill, has spent $1.9 million this cycle, including $136,000 on golf events, baseball tickets, skiing, resorts and related restaurant meals. The committee's expenditures on popcorn, candy, cookies and chocolates totaled $13,400.

Overall, just 44 percent of Cantor's expenditures have gone to other campaigns, and in November his leadership PAC split the bills for a $60,000 Beverly Hills fundraising event with a separate committee that Cantor created explicitly to finance his reelection. That decision demonstrates the blurred lines between the money flow for a lawmaker's reelection and what the official collects for colleagues.


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