Cars For Hire
By Dwight L. Morris
Four years ago, it was hard to pick up a paper without seeing headlines decrying congressional perks. There was much hand-wringing over five-dollar haircuts and a House-run bank that provided its members with free overdraft protection. One might have thought the fate of the nation hung on whether or not members continued to park for free at National and Dulles airports or had access to a gym for $100 a year.
Those perks are nothing compared with the perfectly legal and commonly used loopholes that allow members of Congress to raid their campaign treasuries for personal gain.
How would you like to own a Cadillac and not have to pay for it out of your own pocket?
That's precisely what Democratic Rep. Pete Stark of California does.
During the 1992 election cycle, Stark began leasing his Cadillac Seville, paying one-third of the lease himself and tapping his campaign treasury for the remaining two-thirds. The $16,737 Stark's campaign spent to lease and maintain the car was nearly $1,000 more than his under-funded Republican opponent spent on advertising.
On February 1, 1993, Stark spent $30,869 of his campaign funds to buy out the Seville lease. That single expenditure was $18,919 more than his Republican challenger, attorney Larry Molton, spent on advertising, persuasion mail and grassroots campaign activities combined in 1994 campaign. While Stark clearly derives personal benefit from the car, he paid little for its purchase, while avoiding the inconvenience of increased personal property taxes or income taxes. It's a nice deal if you can get it.
Perhaps you would prefer a Lincoln Town Car. Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato likes them so much that he has his campaign lease two-one to drive whenever he visits his home in New York and one to drive while he is toiling on Capitol Hill. During the six-year election-cycle leading up to his 1992 reelection, D'Amato spent $156,729 of his campaign funds on automobile lease payments, gasoline, insurance and tags.
Over the course of the 1994 election cycle, Colorado Republican Rep. Dan Schaefer spent $27,726 of his campaign funds to lease, license, insure and maintain his "campaign" car. That was $7,782 more than his Democratic challenger, management consultant John Hallen, spent on advertising and persuasion mail combined. Through June 30, Schaefer reported spending $16,815 during the first 18 months of the 1996 election cycle to lease, license, and insure his automobile.
Rep. Marty Meehan's (D-Mass.) campaign currently pays $318 a month to Ford Motor Credit to cover the lease on his car - payments that have totaled $7,234 during the first 18 months of the 1996 election cycle. All insurance and gas bills are paid by the campaign, as well. Over the course of the 1994 campaign, Meehan's campaign picked up the tab for lease payments, insurance premiums and gasoline charges amounting to $18,291.
Fellow Massachusetts Democrat Joseph P. Kennedy II, spent $21,511 of his 1994 campaign funds on his campaign automobile, including lease payments totaling $12,376. His current auto lease - also through Ford Motor Credit - costs his 1996 campaign committee $563 each month.
In his most recent campaign filing with the Federal Election Commission, which covers the period April 1 through June 30, Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Calif.) reported expenditures of only $1,528. All but $268 of that total went to cover the $420 monthly car lease he has through Citizens Bank of Maryland.
One of Missouri Democrat Bill Clay's two campaign committees picks up the cost of Clay's $698 monthly car lease with Ford Motor Credit. Ford Motors also collects $536 each month from California Democrat Robert T. Matsui's campaign treasury.
A complete recitation of House and Senate incumbents who fund at least one car through their campaign committees would require far more space than I have in this column. During each of the last three election cycles, incumbents seeking reelection have diverted more than $1.5 million of their campaign treasuries to cover the cost of "campaign" cars, many of which are driven here in Washington, not in the member's home states.
For a time it looked like retiring North Carolina Democratic Rep. Charlie Rose was trying to start a used car business.
In 1990, Rose spent $8,288 of his campaign funds on a used car, but apparently that was insufficient to cover his transportation needs.
In June 1992, Rose tapped his campaign treasury for $13,821 to cover the cost of a car purchased from Fair Bluff Motors in Fair Bluff, N.C.
Six months later, the campaign shelled out $10,594 to Valley Motors in Fayetteville, N.C., for another car. The campaign also picked up the $6,786 tab for insuring, maintaining, and fueling the automobiles, including a $272 bill at Precision Tune in Alexandria, Va.
On July 17, 1994, Rose dipped into his campaign treasury for $12,920 more to cover the cost of a "campaign vehicle trade-in expense" at Fair Bluff Motors. Care and feeding of the auto fleet cost Rose's campaign $9,669 during the 1994 election cycle. At least one of these cars found its way to Washington, since his campaign-funded maintenance costs included a $1,223 repair bill at Dave Pyle's Lincoln Murcury in Annandale, Va. and a $376 tire purchase at National Tire in Alexandria, Va.
Indiana Republican Rep. John T. Myers, who will also be retiring at the end of this term, has gone Rose one better. During the 1994 election cycle, Myers spent $21,526 of his campaign funds on a new car from Mike's Motor Company in Clinton, Ind. That followed his $19,635 purchase of a Chrysler LeBaron convertible during the 1992 election cycle. At the time he purchased the LeBaron, Myers was using campaign funds to insure and maintain a 1970 white Impala convertible that he used for parades, a 1989 Plymouth Sundance, and a 1984 Chrysler. Maintenance and insurance on his fleet of cars cost Myer's 1994 campaign $10,586.
Yet another retiring member of the House, Tennessee Rep. James H. Quillen, paid $21,355 in 1994 to Raley-Vaughan Motors in Rogersville, Tenn., to cover the "difference in campaign auto trade-in."
What will become of Quillen's, Myers' and Rose's campaign cars upon their retirement? Undoubtedly the same thing that happened to former Rep. Marvin Leath's $23,000 Lincoln Town Car. When Leath retired at the end of 1990, he drove his car home and parked it in his garage.
This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.
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