Investigations of Members on Rise

Election Crimes Face Scrutiny

Posted October 9, 2007 at 6:31pm

Federal investigators are hinting that a fresh wave of campaign-related theft and corruption investigations of Members of Congress are moving through the pipeline, signaling that indictments may be on the horizon.

According to multiple sources and independent confirmation from agency officials, the Justice Department currently is honing in on the possible misuse of campaign money by Members and political candidates for personal country club dues, health club fees, non-campaign-related travel costs and other expenses that candidates are prohibited from paying out of their campaign war chests.

The Federal Election Commission also confirmed that it currently is investigating 10 embezzlement cases involving federal campaign committees — four more than its entire caseload in half a decade.

Officials from both agencies declined to name the Members or candidates involved in the investigations, which were first revealed at a legal seminar for the Practicing Law Institute in Washington, D.C., late last week by Craig Donsanto, head of the Justice Department’s election crimes branch, and David Mason, the FEC’s Republican-nominated vice chairman. A Justice Department spokesman confirmed Tuesday that corruption cases involving lawmakers and other public officials remain “a high priority for the Department of Justice.”

On Tuesday the Justice Department announced that Richard Wickett, a former executive at Florida-based construction giant PBS&J, made as much as $400,000 in illegal campaign contributions to unnamed federal and state candidates. He faces 18 to 24 months in jail.

“Our increased emphasis in combating all forms of public corruption has resulted in an increase in the number and profile of cases, as evidenced for example by the prosecutions resulting from the Jack Abramoff investigation,” Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said.

In an interview with Roll Call on Monday, Mason elaborated on his statements last week, indicating that half of the agency’s 10 embezzlement cases involve candidate committees, while three involve political action committees and two are political party cases. Of the five candidate committees, he said three belong to first-time candidates. The FEC investigations more than likely involve staffers or volunteers who appear to have stolen money from the campaigns.

In the majority of cases, Mason said, campaign graft is typically reported first to local police departments. He attributed the explosion in embezzlement-related cases to the increased exposure campaigns face in billion-dollar election cycles. Fatigued volunteers with too much access, he said, often plague candidate committees, which frequently impose little oversight of their accounting records.

“The average House campaign, not to mention a Senate campaign, is just a whole lot bigger than it was 10 years ago — that creates more temptation for somebody to steal,” Mason said. “There are hundreds of committees out there; if there’s just 1 percent, that’s still several cases a cycle.

“We had a case where one individual said he wasn’t being paid enough,” he added. “And there were a couple of other cases where people were logging huge volunteer hours and may have felt that it made up for it.”

The FEC recently released a set of acceptable accounting guidelines for candidate committees. If followed, candidates may have immunity from agency fines, which Mason said reflects the understanding that candidates ultimately have the responsibility to ensure that their books are in order.

Donsanto declined this week to discuss the statements he made at the legal seminar last Friday, but recent findings by the FEC — combined with increased cooperation between the elections agency and the Justice Department — suggests that federal law enforcement may be thumbing through recently completed audits of Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.). Since the summer of 2006, FEC auditors have determined that both lawmakers used campaign money for personal expenses.

In Pombo’s case, FEC auditors found that in 2003, Annette Pombo, the lawmaker’s wife, issued checks to herself for $58,623 for salary and expense reimbursements. The report said that roughly a third of the payments “appeared … to represent the personal use of campaign funds.”

Pombo, who said Tuesday that he has not been contacted by the Justice Department, said his campaign never was able to fully account for about $11,000 of the money and had to amend campaign and tax records to show the money as unclaimed income.

“There were either insufficient receipts or no receipts,” Pombo said. “I couldn’t provide a receipt for computer equipment for the campaign or stuff like that.”

The FEC’s audit of Meeks’ campaign found that his campaign misspent more than $15,000 on health club charges and transportation reimbursements during the 2004 election cycle.

According to the agency’s audit report issued August 2006, Meeks’ campaign acknowledged “expenses totaling $7,146 were mistakenly paid for by [Meeks for Congress] and would be reimbursed by the candidate.”

The audit report of Meeks’ campaign shows that he spent $6,230 on a personal trainer, who charged $45 per hour. Meeks’ campaign told the commission “that the personal trainer was necessary to alleviate stress brought on by the candidate’s duties.”

Federal law states that candidates may not pay for “dues, fees and other payments to a health club or recreational facility” out of their campaign accounts.

The FEC’s audit report also concluded that Meeks did not keep proper records for $9,812 in vehicle expenses that were considered “personal expenses of the candidate.” Another $916 in questionable charges made to a credit card, auditors found, were for an “airline ticket, lodging, clothing and cell phone accessories.”

Meeks did not respond to Roll Call’s request Tuesday to discuss the audit.

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.