Vail: Where leadership PAC money goes to play

Connecticut Democrat has spent leadership PAC money in Vail, Greenwich

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., spent over $100,000 in leadership PAC money at the resort town of Vail. (CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., spent over $100,000 in leadership PAC money at the resort town of Vail. (CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 12, 2020 at 6:00am

Rep. Jim Himes has spent $100,298 from his leadership political action committee on luxury hotels, transportation and event catering on trips to Vail, Colorado, since 2012.

Over that time frame, the Connecticut Democrat spent $46,630 at the Sonnenalp Hotel and $30,246 at the Four Seasons Hotel, using money from his Jobs and Innovation Matter PAC (JIM PAC). The Sonnenalp and Four Seasons are both high-end hotels with rooms that cost several hundreds of dollars, some of which can reach well over $900 per night during peak ski season in the snowy slopes of Vail.

“Congressman Himes has held fundraising events in Vail, as many other members of Congress have done, to raise money to support progressive candidates and causes through his Leadership PAC,” Lauren Gray, campaign manager for Himes for Congress, said in an email. “Since 2011, JIM PAC has donated more than a million dollars in the efforts to elect candidates and support policies that will move our country in a more progressive, fair direction.”

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Leadership PACs are committees primarily used to fund other federal candidates. Himes has funneled a substantial amount of money to various Democrats from his JIM PAC, including contributions to Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey, Max Rose of New York, Cindy Axne of Iowa and former Rep. Katie Hill of California.

Members of Congress are prohibited from converting campaign funds for personal use and must be able to verify that those resources have not been misused. House rules broadly define “campaign funds” to include “leadership PAC” funds.

“The expenditures filed with the FEC fall entirely within permissible political spending under Congressional ethics and FEC rules, and the campaign’s compliance team has ensured that all of the outlays are completely above board. Expenditures for transportation, lodging and event catering are just that: transportation, hotels and food bought in order to raise money,” Gray said.

Countless members of Congress attend similar trips each year in similar locations all around the country, and Democrats have used the funds to protect Frontline members and win a majority that’s doing the work of the American people, Gray added.

Himes’ PAC wasn’t alone in heading for the mountains. Rep. John Moolenaar, a Michigan Republican, has also spent leadership PAC money in Vail. His leadership PAC spent $22,839 on ski and snowmobile activities, lodging at the Four Seasons, and catering in and around Vail.

“Members of Congress across the ideological spectrum routinely use leadership PACs to pay for fundraising trips to very attractive locations, including ski resorts, beach resorts, and sporting events,” Michael Beckel, research director for Issue One, said in an email. “Some may say it takes money to raise money, that wealthy donors want to be courted in luxurious settings, but it’s clear that members of Congress can use special interest-funded leadership PACs to enjoy perks that most Americans can’t enjoy without footing the bills themselves.”

Himes’ JIM PAC spent $237 for tickets at the American Ski Exchange in February of 2013. American Ski Exchange offers rentals for ski and snowboard equipment.

More recently, in February of 2019, the PAC spent $3,062 at Root and Flower, a wine and cocktail bar, for a fundraising event.

In December of 2019, Himes’ PAC spent $848 at the Epic Mountain Express, a car service that provides shuttle service from the airport to various Colorado resorts, including to Vail.

Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform for the Campaign Legal Center, said many politicians use leadership PACs as slush funds, but he noted that Himes’ PAC doesn’t appear to fit that mold because a “sizable majority” of his spending went to fund other candidates.

“I suspect that the Vail expenditures are for JIM PAC fundraising expenses, which don’t raise significant concerns because the funds raised are largely going towards legitimate contributions,” Fischer said. “If only a minority of JIM PAC’s spending went towards supporting other candidates, the Vail costs would be more concerning.”

Beckel also noted that Himes has spent the majority of JIM PAC money on financing Democratic candidates — the intended purpose of the PAC. However, citing FEC data gathered by the Center for Responsive Politics, Beckel said Himes has spent a “sizeable” portion in Vail.

“FEC records show that the leadership PAC of Rep. Himes has spent about $100,000 associated with ski trips in Vail — about $1 of every $15 that it’s spent,” Beckel said.

“One of the primary uses of leadership PACs is to go out and raise money in order to amass funds that can be given away to help like-minded politicians, political allies, and embattled candidates who need extra campaign cash,” Beckel said. “Yet many people would likely be surprised to learn that this PAC is spending such a sizeable portion of its expenditures in Vail, Colorado, a ski resort town roughly 2,000 miles from Connecticut.”

The House Ethics Committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics both declined comment.

Separately, since 2011, Himes has spent $13,257 on lodging at a waterfront hotel in his hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut, the Delamar Greenwich Harbor. The hotel is just a few miles from Himes’ residence. He holds events at the hotel and books the rooms for his campaign staffers who work the events.

“JIM PAC holds an annual event near the Congressman’s home in Southwest Connecticut. Event activities often occur at or near the Delamar; campaign staff who support the event stay at the hotel out of convenience,” Gray said.

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