The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP Rep. Spano admits federal campaign probe; Ethics panel looks into three others

The House Ethics Committee says it is investigating Rep. Alcee Hastings’s relationship with his longtime companion, who works on his staff. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/file)

The House Ethics Committee on Thursday disclosed a federal investigation into a Florida Republican accused of accepting an illegal campaign loan and also announced it was scrutinizing a veteran Florida Democrat for a long-standing personal relationship with a highly paid aide.

Rep. Ross Spano (R-Fla.) acknowledged the Justice Department probe in a statement issued after the ethics panel’s announcement Thursday. The freshmanhas faced questions about $180,000 in loans he accepted from friends last year during the closing months of his campaign. He later appeared to funnel the money into his campaign account, reporting it as a personal loan to the campaign.

Spano has blamed bad advice for any campaign-finance misdeeds stemming from the loans, and he continued to make that case Thursday. Under federal law, individuals may contribute no more than $2,700 to House candidates.

“We plan to cooperate fully with the Justice Department on this matter,” he said in a statement. “As I’ve said before, we acknowledged that mistakes were made with respect to the campaign loans, but those mistakes were completely inadvertent and unintentional. We were the ones who self-reported this to the FEC. We are confident that upon review, the Justice Department will see it that way, too.”

The Ethics Committee said in a brief statement that the Justice Department “asked the Committee to defer consideration of this matter,” prompting a unanimous vote to comply with the request.

The panel routinely steps aside in matters subject to criminal investigation, as it did during the recent probes into Reps. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), who has been indicted on a charge of using campaign funds for personal expenses, and Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who resigned last month after pleading guilty to insider trading charges.

The announcement regarding Spano was one of four actions the panel announced Thursday.

Another matter concerned 14-term Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) and his longtime companion, Patricia Williams, who has worked as an aide to Hastings since he first took office in 1993. She earns $168,411 a year as deputy district director, according to House employment records collected by LegiStorm — the highest salary in Hastings’s office.

The relationship has repeatedly come under public scrutiny, including in a 2012 report from the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The relationship was not against House rules at the time; Hastings told the Palm Beach Post, “my personal business is just that, personal.”

House rules, however, were changed in February 2018 in light of the #MeToo movement to bar members from “engag[ing] in a sexual relationship with any employee of the House who works under the supervision” of the member in question. The Ethics Committee said Thursday said it was specifically considering that provision and “whether [Hastings] has received any improper gifts, including any forbearance, from that employee.”

The investigation could be a delicate one, probing the precise nature of the relationship between Hastings, 83, and Williams. A spokesman for Hastings did not respond to a request for comment.

The committee also moved to extend its review of a matter involving Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), one of the highest-profile members of the freshman class. According to an Office of Congressional Ethics report released Thursday, Tlaib came under scrutiny for her decision to pay herself a salary totaling $45,500 through her congressional campaign. Candidate salaries are permissible under federal election law under certain circumstances, but investigators found that Tlaib may have been paid for work performed after the Nov. 6, 2018, general election, in violation of federal guidelines.

Tlaib and campaign staff declined to be interviewed by investigators. “Because Rep. Tlaib refused to interview with the OCE, the OCE could not address these potentially problematic payments with her,” the report said.

Tlaib said in a statement that she “cooperated fully and forthrightly” with investigators and is “glad that the public now has access to the facts of this matter and can see for themselves that I have complied with [Federal Election Commission] regulations and the law at all times.”

“It is our duty to ensure that Congress becomes a place that is made for people like me and everyday people who want to have a seat at the decision-making table,” she said, defending the practice of taking a campaign salary.

Another matter extended by the Ethics Committee dealt with Rep. Bill Huizenga’s alleged improper handling of staff travel expenses and improper use of campaign funds for personal purposes. OCE investigators found more than $33,000 worth of improperly documented expenses paid through Huizenga’s campaign account to his chief of staff.

Investigators also scrutinized several campaign-related trips that Huizenga (R-Mich.) took with his family, as well as member of his staff and their families, to several resorts between 2015 and 2018.

“While these trips were generally described as campaign fundraisers, the high cost and the attendance of staff’s families on these trips raised concerns that campaign funds were being converted for personal use to pay for vacations for Rep. Huizenga, his staff, and their families,” investigators wrote.

Brian Patrick, a spokesman for Huizenga, cast the allegations as politically motivated. “This matter has already been resolved and dismissed by the Federal Election Commission,” he said. “We have fully cooperated in the investigation and eagerly await a timely resolution.”

Read more at PowerPost