Political Reckoning

Posted January 29, 2008 at 6:40pm

Today Roll Call debuts a new weekly column on money in politics. It will run every Wednesday in the Politics section.

Like everyone else, lawmakers undoubtedly spend the post-holiday weeks thumbing through their campaign checkbooks, glancing at receipts, scratching their heads and wondering where it all went.

[IMGCAP(1)]For Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), the post-holiday reality check perhaps came when she saw the thousands of dollars her campaign committee spent on “photos for holiday card.” Sanchez’s legendary Christmas cards typically include her cat, Gretzky, involved in something decidedly un-feline-like, such as co- piloting a Zamboni machine.

This past year, Sanchez and Gretzky were pictured atop an ice-grooming machine at the Honda Center, home of the National Hockey League’s Anaheim Ducks. Sanchez’s office hired Irvine, Calif.-based One Image Photography to snap the photo.

Their fees: $2,171.

Sanchez’s office declined to comment on the payment.

High holiday card costs also stung Brooklyn-based Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), who paid district-based Prestige Printing $12,798 earlier this month for Christmas card production and printing costs. Like other Members, Towns spokeswoman Denise Mixon said her boss sends out cards annually to family, friends, donors and other elected officials.

But Mixon said it’s simply more expensive running a campaign office in the Big Apple than in other districts. And postage adds up, too.

“Printing costs are ridiculous,” she said. “We try to keep it in our district, but the costs just don’t come down.”

Across the Hudson River and down the Garden State Parkway, Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) sent his donors late last year almost $10,000 worth of gift baskets from Chocolate Heaven, “South Jersey’s Best Choice for Chocolate,” according to campaign finance records.

Andrews’ office declined to comment on the expense.

Atta Boy. A few Members also had it in the kindness of their hearts to give out year-end bonuses to campaign hands late last year. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) paid campaign staffer Lonny Leitner a $1,160 bonus late last year, while across the Evergreen State, Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) gave his campaign treasurer two checks totaling more than $9,500 in December, according to campaign finance records.

Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) gave campaign staffer Anne Rosenthal a $1,700 year-end check. Texas Republican Rep. John Culberson gave campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Naedler $5,000 in December, according to campaign finance records.

Former National Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) paid campaign staffer Bill Oorbeek $10,000 out of TOMPAC, Reynolds’ leadership political action committee, in late December.

Double Down. Las Vegas hardly is known as the national seat of upright behavior. So it’s not without a sense of irony that Politics magazine is staging its annual “All Things Ethical” seminar in Sin City this year.

“We thought it was a target-rich environment,” joked Jordan Lieberman, the magazine’s publisher. The two-day confab, which starts April 3, will school campaign operatives on “Avoiding Your Own Ethics Meltdown,” “Facing the Voters” and “Blog Mania,” according to topics listed on the invite. (For good measure, organizers are jokingly offering sessions on “Winning at Blackjack,” “Shop ‘Til You Drop,” and “Craps! Craps! Craps!” — though the invite warns that “after-hours personal ethical dilemmas not endorsed or sponsored by Politics magazine.”)

Gags notwithstanding, the magazine, which until recently was known as Campaigns & Elections, has lined up some heavy-hitting campaign talent to headline the event, including Ben Ginsberg, a top lawyer at Patton Boggs, and Kim Scott, president of the national political consulting firm ConklinScott.

“We do take this very seriously,” Lieberman said. He expects the event to attract about 150 political consultants from across the country.

No Thanks. Downtrodden mortgage broker Countrywide Financial Corp. couldn’t give away its money late last year, contributing no PAC gifts to candidates during the last quarter, according to its year-end FEC filings.

In one case, one Member decided simply not to cash his check, according to FEC reports. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who sits on the House Financial Services panel, perhaps thought the $5,000 Countrywide check would be too hot to handle, given his panel assignment, and the political committee put the contribution back on its books late last year.

Despite Countrywide’s much-publicized financial woes — it announced this week that revenue is down almost 60 percent — company executives and rank and file continue to dump money into its campaign account. Its employees gave the company’s PAC roughly $212,000 last year and about $130,000 remains unclaimed by lawmakers, who may prefer to steer clear of campaign gifts from scandal-clouded subprime lenders as the housing market slumps.

Bank of America is in talks to acquire the once-prominent subprime mortgage giant. Unlike Countrywide, the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank’s PAC continued to dole out checks during the last quarter to the tune of $37,000. Last year, Bank of America’s PAC gave out roughly $450,000 to federal candidates, according to its campaign records.

Gone, but Not Forgotten. Former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) gave himself an early Christmas gift this year: his campaign car. In May 2003, Pombo began making $569 monthly payments out of his re-election account for the “purchase of vehicle for campaign use.” In January 2004, Pombo appeared to purchase the vehicle outright, withdrawing $14,822 from his campaign account, according to CQ MoneyLine. Pombo also appeared to pay more than $3,000 during the last campaign cycle for unspecified “auto repairs.”

But during the last quarter, campaign finance records indicate Pombo paid $6,110 in early November for the “purchase of a committee-owned vehicle.” The former Congressman did not respond to Roll Call’s request for comment on Tuesday.

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