Last Modified: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 8:37 PM
“Everyone in Washington knows this goes on. It’s well-known, an open secret. The problem is people in Ohio and New Mexico have no idea what’s going on here in Washington.”
Melanie Sloan was talking about leadership political action committees that were the subject of a “60 Minutes” segment Sunday. Sloan is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
Leadership PACs are a loophole designed to get around strict ethics rules that govern campaign accounts. They were created in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until “60 Minutes” put them in the national spotlight that they grabbed everyone’s attention.
National Journal, a Washington, D.C., political news magazine, in July said there were 120 leadership PACs during the 1998 election cycle. It said there are more than 450 today. About two-thirds of House members have them.
The maximum campaign donation is $5,200. However, anyone who gives a candidate that amount can also give his or her leadership PAC another $5,000.
Congress clamped down on the use of campaign funds for personal expenses, but the leadership PACs aren’t affected because they aren’t technically considered campaign funds. So members of Congress use them to play golf at resort locations, go deep sea fishing, hire babysitters, buy sports tickets, entertain and to do almost anything imaginable.
U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., actually used $64,500 from his PAC to commission a portrait of himself. And that’s just part of the story told back in 2009 by the Washington Post. The newspaper said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., spent more than $57,000 to entertain at Las Vegas casinos. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., used more than $47,000 to buy tickets to New York Yankee and Giants games.
Sloan could have named Louisiana — or any other state — when she said most citizens have no idea how some members of Congress use diversionary tactics like these PACs to achieve questionable goals.
Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, told Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” that leadership PACs can be used for literally anything. He agreed with Kroft that they are political slush funds.
“That’s exactly what it is. It’s a political slush fund. Over time, we’ve had them. They’ve been outlawed. They spring back in new guises, and this is the latest guise,” Potter said.
Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina used his leadership PAC to pay Rielle Hunter, his mistress, $114,000 to make a campaign video.
“60 Minutes” said former congressmen use the funds when they become lobbyists and others use them even after an official dies. Potter told Kroft that U.S. Rep. Paul Gillmor of Ohio died in 2007 and his staff used the funds to pay for a number of dinners, pizza parties and other events.
“What they said was, ‘Well, it’s a grieving process. And also, we need to talk to each other about getting new jobs, and this is a way to do it’,” Potter said.
Sloan of CREW told “60 Minutes” it’s against the law to use campaign funds for personal things, but it’s OK to use them to hire family members. And that is where Louisiana entered the picture.
Rodney Alexander, a former Louisiana congressman, was one of the examples Kroft used to explain how some campaign money is used. Alexander resigned from Congress and is now secretary of this state’s Department of Veterans Affairs.
Alexander didn’t have serious opposition in 2012 when he ran for re-election, but he hired his daughters and paid them a total of $130,000. Here is part of the interchange between Kroft and Alexander:
Kroft: “I mean to some people, it just looks like you’re using your campaign fund to enrich your family.”
Alexander: “Well, somebody has to do that work, Steve.”
Kroft: “So, you kept it in the family?”
Alexander: “Well I kept it with somebody that I can trust and if one can’t trust their daughter, then who can they trust?”
Former congressman Ron Paul of Texas had six members of his family on the payroll for two election cycles — his daughter, his daughter’s mother-in-law, three grandchildren and a grandchild-in-law. He paid them a total of $340,000, according to Kroft.
Rep. Grace Napolitano of California used her leadership PAC to loan her campaign $150,000 and charged the campaign 18 percent interest. Over a 12-year period, she took in $228,000 in interest. Kroft told her that’s the kind of interest the Mafia gets.
“It isn’t like I’ve really profited,” she said. “I still live in the same house. I drive a small car. I am not a billionaire, or a millionaire, for that matter.”
Don’t you just love the things people say when they get caught with their hands in the cookie jar?
How do members of Congress get away with twisting the campaign laws to enhance their political survival? They do it simply because they can. They know the voters back home are too busy struggling to make a living to pay close attention. We can fix that by asking them how much money they have stashed away in these leadership PACs the next time they come around asking for our vote and financial support.
• • •Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or firstname.lastname@example.org