Traficant Goes on Shopping Spree at House Gift Shop

Posted May 16, 2003 at 6:30pm

Former Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio), the expelled Congressman now in jail for misusing government funds, bought nearly $14,000 in political trinkets and memorabilia in the House Gift Shop in 2001 and 2002 using money from his re-election account.

According to data mined from Federal Election Commission reports by PoliticalMoneyLine.com, Traficant spent far more money than any other Member of Congress in the Gift Shop in the previous election cycle — about 47 percent more than the second-biggest spender, Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), who spent $9,470.52.

Overall, more than a 100 House Members spent a total of $173,731.30 on gifts for their constituents, campaign supporters and staffers.

Aside from Traficant and Young, the biggest spenders included Reps. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), Dan Burton (R-Ind.), Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.).

Members who frequented the Gift Shop included leaders of both parties, such as former Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and former Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Members from both ends of the political spectrum, from Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) to Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.).

Most of the money goes to purchasing hundreds of golf balls, cuff links, aprons, buttons, gift baskets, towels, pens, hats, mugs, cookbooks and other House mementos that can be handed out back home.

“A gift from the United States House of Representatives Gift Shop means a lot to people back in Nevada,” said Amy Spanbauer, a spokeswoman for Gibbons. “Golf balls mean a lot more than a cheese basket.”

Gibbons’ campaign spent more than $5,000 in campaign funds at the Gift Shop in the previous cycle.

Federal law and House ethics rules prohibit Members from using campaign funds for their own personal use, but they are given wide latitude to spend the money on their constituents and supporters.

“The basic dividing line is if something is a campaign expenditure and is directly connected to your campaign it is fine,” said Trevor Potter, a lawyer who helped draft the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. “But if something is purely personal, such as a family meal, it’s not a permissible use of campaign funds.”

A few Members disclosed in their FEC reports that they purchased wedding presents and baby gifts with the campaign accounts.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), for example, purchased a $61.55 wedding present at the House Gift Shop in September 2001, according to the data.

Smith spokesman Chris Chinchester said the present was for a longtime supporter.

“The campaign account was used to thank them for their support,” Chinchester said. “Their support has been recognized and appreciated.”

A Member can use his or her campaign funds to pay for such gifts if they are considered a part of the officeholder’s job.

“The statute allows them to use campaign funds not only for campaign use but also expenses related to being a Member,” said Jan Baran, a campaign lawyer with Wiley, Rein & Fielding. “I expect these public officials get hit up more often than most.”