Rep. James Weaver (D-Ore.), who has been enmeshed in a complex controversy over the use of $81,900 in his campaign fund, is considering a challenge to Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Such a move would be a major shift for Weaver, who had been contemplating retirement from politics. "My juices got flowing again," he said.
In recent months, Weaver has been battered by stories in The Oregonian, of Portland, and other newspapers in his home state that have examined complicated transactions involving his campaign funds. Weaver is one of two House members whose local papers have raised sharp questions about how they use political contributions.
Both men, Weaver and Rep. William H. Boner (D-Tenn.), have taken hard-nosed stances in the face of criticism, not only from their local papers, but from Common Cause, a lobby focusing on campaign finance and other issues.
"This is my money," Weaver said, describing what originally was listed as $81,900 in loans to him from his campaign fund. The money went to his commodities broker.
Boner, who has used his campaign funds to pay for a side trip in the Orient, for the leasing of a Pontiac since 1983 and for $50,000 in "constituent entertainment and gifts," said: "I have exercised my best judgment on what are bona fide campaign expenses. I have followed both the spirit and the letter of the House rules and federal elections laws."
Boner added: "However, to the extent that the rules can be changed to help members clarify what are bona fide campaign expenses, I join Common Cause in seeking such changes."
Weaver's dealings with his campaign fund date back to 1981, when he began to take out what were listed as loans to himself. The money went to his broker.
In an interview, Weaver said the money was not actually a loan but an advance to his broker to invest on behalf of his campaign fund. He said he listed the transactions as loans because he intended to repay the campaign if the investments failed, which they did.
"I lost money," Weaver said.
When he took the money out of the campaign fund, Weaver said, he was unaware that an entirely separate series of loans he had made to his campaign in 1974 could still be collected with interest. These loans by Weaver to his committee -- totaling $24,000 -- roughly equalled the amount of the loans the committee had given him for the investment effort, when compounded at a 14 percent interest rate.
Amid the controversy over the loans for investment, Weaver said he learned that he could collect his 11-year-old debt. In a letter to the Federal Election Commission last month, he declared his intention to declare a net wash by wiping out his debt to the committee with the old debt it owed him.
"I was erroneously and unofficially informed that my loans could not be repaid, though I continued to believe the loan should be repaid," Weaver wrote the FEC. "Payments made by Weaver for Congress to myself as loans to me by the committee are now constituted, as they should be, payment of principle and interest on the loan I made to Weaver for Congress in 1974."
In the interview, Weaver acknowledged "it is complicated."
In the case of Boner, the Nashville Tennessean reported that the Nashville representative used his campaign fund to pay for the trip in the Orient, the three-year lease of a Pontiac and a pickup truck.
Boner's spending was sharply attacked by Common Cause, which has urged the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (ethics) to conduct an investigation. The lobbying group cited House rules prohibiting the use of campaign funds for "personal use" and requiring that all campaign money be spent for "bona fide campaign purposes."
Boner contends that there is no definition in House rules of a "bona fide" campaign expense and that, therefore, he has the power to use his own definition.
". . . I have exercised my best judgment on what are bona fide campaign expenses," he said.
Jeff Eller, Boner's press aide, contended each expenditure was a legitimate political expense.
In the case of the trip, Eller said Boner was visiting Soochow University in Taiwan when he took a side trip at campaign expense to Hong Kong with Rep. Donald K. Sundquist (R-Tenn.). "There was a legitimate political gain from the side trip," Eller said, quoting his boss as saying: "I furthered my relationship with Don Sundquist, and therefore it is justifiable as a political expense."
The leased Pontiac, Eller said, is used in Nashville for political and regular congressional work. Eller contended that Boner could, under House rules, lease the car at taxpayer expense but instead has charged the cost to his campaign fund. The pickup truck is used for such political purposes as hauling yard signs, and the $50,000 in constituent entertainment and gifts included small gifts of tie clasps, cufflinks and other trinkets to contributors as well as meals in the House restaurant with constituents.
While Boner intends to "play" by his interpretation of the rules, Weaver said: "I don't like campaign spending, I think it's obscene, awful." If he decides to challenge Packwood, he said, he plans to spend "the minimum amount necessary."