At first glance, the reelection campaign of Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) looks downright frugal. In an age of million-dollar-plus House races, McInnis reported expenses of less than $150,000 in the year leading up to last week's election.
Of course, the McInnis campaign should have been cheap, since there was no campaign -- he announced in the summer of 2003 that he would not seek another term. But his campaign committee has since reported expenditures of thousands of dollars each month -- and much of the spending has accrued to the benefit of his wife, Lori.
The campaign without a candidate has paid Lori McInnis more than $40,000, plus a benefit plan of $1,150 per month, to serve as campaign manager. The campaign pays for the car and the cell phone she uses. It also has spent tens of thousands of dollars on restaurant, hotel and travel bills since McInnis ended his candidacy.
Federal law and House rules say campaign funds cannot be converted to the personal use of candidates or family members. Contributions left over after a candidate withdraws can legally be used for necessary expenses of shutting down a campaign, for official duties of the candidate or for contributions to charity or other political entities. It is legal for congressional campaigns to hire relatives of the candidate.
"It's legal to hire family members, and some people do it," noted Fred Wertheimer of the campaign watchdog group Democracy 21. "But it gets a little hard to explain why you're paying a family member to work on a campaign when there's no campaign.
"At best, this is an effort to skim the system," Wertheimer said. "At worst, it raises potentially serious legal questions."
Mike Hesse, McInnis's chief of staff, said Lori McInnis is responsible for archiving the records from previous campaigns, for contributing money to other candidates and for dealing with the accounting firm the campaign hired to keep track of income and outgo. He said she generally works from home, and parks the campaign car there. He said she needed the car in May for events connected to the Colorado Republican convention.
The outlays by the McInnis committee reflect the realities of campaign finance these days. With a battery of incumbent-protection mechanisms in place, and with many House districts designed to be one-party monopolies, most incumbents rarely face a serious reelection challenge. Yet contributions, primarily from interest groups, have skyrocketed.
The result is that most incumbents have accumulated significant campaign treasuries that they don't need for campaigning. When McInnis decided to leave Congress -- he will become a lobbyist for the Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson -- his campaign had more than $1.4 million in reserve. But the Campaign Reform Act of 2002 says that money "shall not be converted by any person to personal use." Still, the campaign committee known as Friends of Scott McInnis found ways to use some of the excess.
As is common for retiring candidates, McInnis contributed some leftover funds to other campaigns, including the unsuccessful congressional campaign of his wife's brother. He sent thousands of dollars to the legal defense fund of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.); three of DeLay's top political aides were indicted in September on charges of illegally raising political funds from corporations in 2002.
Lori McInnis has been a paid employee of her husband's reelection campaign since 2001, spending reports show. She was paid about 50 percent more for the 2004 election cycle, with no candidate, than she was paid in the 2002 campaign, when she had an active candidate to manage.
Beyond that, the campaign fund paid for purchases at grocery stores, gas stations, convenience stores and flower shops, the reports show. It has paid for plane and train tickets and rental cars. The former candidate's campaign pays the monthly bills for a conventional phone and a cell phone and an Internet connection at the McInnis home, Hesse said.
A reading of the expenditure reports McInnis has filed with the Federal Election Commission suggests that the lawmaker and those around him regularly used campaign contributions to pay bills small and large. In February, somebody spent $3.23 at the deli counter of the Safeway in Grand Junction, Colo., McInnis's home town. This expense was paid by the campaign and was described as a "meeting" when reported to the FEC.
The committee also paid for meetings at steakhouses, Chinese restaurants and Tex-Mex joints around the D.C. area, including dinners at the Prime Rib on K Street NW ($331.55), Blackie's House of Beef on 22nd Street NW ($571.55) and the Peking Gourmet Inn on Leesburg Pike in Baileys Crossroads ($119). Hesse said most of these events were gatherings of McInnis's former contributors.
The campaign paid for numerous cups of coffee at the Starbucks on 17th and Pennsylvania, with bills ranging from $6 to $30 and each expenditure described as a meeting. Hesse said McInnis often "found it easier to go to Starbucks" than to meet people in his office.
McInnis represents a large district on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. When he decided not to seek reelection, a local farmer, John Salazar, entered the race as a Democrat. Salazar's victory last week made Colorado's 3rd District one of the few House districts in the country to switch parties in the 2004 election.