Trips to ski slopes, beaches and golf courses popular with House leadership PACs

Posh events to draw contributors face criticism from reformers

From left, Texas Reps. K. Michael Conaway and Kevin Brady spent a substantial amount of leadership PAC money on lavish expenditures. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
From left, Texas Reps. K. Michael Conaway and Kevin Brady spent a substantial amount of leadership PAC money on lavish expenditures. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 20, 2020 at 10:00am

The price tag at the Caves Valley Golf Club in Maryland, which bills itself as focused “solely on golf and golfer’s needs”: More than $102,000.

Spring training tickets and meals in Florida, where the Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins play their preseason games: Over $13,000.

Stays at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel on the beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico: Nearly $17,000. Additional sightseeing, boating and fishing on the island territory: $11,000.

These are some of the ways Rep. K. Michael Conaway has spent $285,000 since 2011 from his leadership political action committee, Conservative Opportunities for a New America PAC, according to disclosures with the Federal Election Commission.

And the Texas Republican, first elected to Congress in 2004, is not alone in using leadership PAC money for luxuries that ethics experts consider questionable. Added together, he and six House colleagues — who span the political spectrum — spent nearly $800,000 over the past 11 years on elaborate expenditures, a review by CQ Roll Call found.

Ski trips to Western mountain resorts were popular. So were fishing, golf, whitewater rafting and plenty of food and drink.

House and Senate members use leadership PACs to raise and spend money separately from their principal campaign accounts. Created before courts opened the door to the super PACs that are not subject to contribution limits, leadership PACs were intended to be for “party building,” a way for members to tap their networks to raise money for their parties and other House and Senate candidates.

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Yet one study found some lawmakers spend so much raising money, there's not always much left to give away.

Lawmakers are prohibited from using political contributions for personal use and must be able to verify the resources were appropriately spent.

But to Robert Maguire, research director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, leadership PACs are “slush funds.”

Michael Beckel, research director at the the advocacy group Issue One, sees them as a prime example of why rules need to be tightened.

“It’s clear that the political fundraising industry is capitalizing off of a broken political system in which wealthy donors get special access to lawmakers under the guise of fundraising events in which they are enjoying ski trips or fishing trips or fine wine and food together,” he said.

FEC rules prohibit using campaign funds for personal use. Any expense that would exist if a person wasn’t a candidate for office or did not hold office would be subject to the personal-use ban. That means candidates can’t spend contributor money to buy groceries or rent their home.

Campaign funds cannot be used for entertainment, including tickets to spring training games, unless “the entertainment is part of a specific officeholder or campaign activity,” the rules say.

Among the seven lawmakers, Conaway topped the list in lavish spending. Of his more than quarter-million total, he spent over $52,000 on Ritz-Carlton hotel stays in Florida destinations such as Coconut Grove and Amelia Island.

He also spent $2,841 in Massachusetts on limousine service and at the Sea Crest Beach Hotel, a waterfront resort in Cape Cod.

A spokesperson for Conaway did not respond to requests for comment.

Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind spent substantial leadership PAC money out west. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Luxury life out West

Another Texas Republican, Rep. Kevin Brady, spent almost $178,000 on food, drinks and lodging in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, since 2016. Of that total, his leadership PAC, Making America Prosperous PAC, doled out $157,000 for stays at Hotel Terra Jackson Hole, “one of the country’s most iconic ski destinations,” according to the posh resort’s website.

Brady is the ranking Republican on the House Ways & Means Committee. In 2017, as the panel’s chairman, he played a critical role in the sweeping overhaul of the tax system President Donald Trump signed at the end of that year.

His PAC also spent money at the Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa, and the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Additionally, Brady’s PAC ran up a $552 tab on Aug. 3, 2017 at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, known on its website as “Wyoming’s landmark watering hole.”

A Brady spokesperson did not return requests for comment.

Rep. Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat, appears to be a fan of elite winter sports. He has spent nearly $102,000 from his Badger PAC at resorts in Utah and Colorado since 2009. This includes Canyons Village in Park City, Utah, and Vail Resorts in Colorado. Canyons Village notes that it offers easy access to “Utah’s legendary powder.” Also included in Kind’s spending was $1,539 at Snowmobile Adventure in Utah.

A spokesperson for Kind did not respond to requests for comment.

Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat, has spent $100,298 from his Jobs and Innovation Matter PAC on luxury hotels, transportation and event catering on trips to Vail, Colorado, since 2012. This total includes a $237 expenditure at the American Ski Exchange.

Utah apparently had special appeal to Rep. Mike Kelly. The Pennsylvania Republican has spent over $50,000 from his Keep America Rolling PAC in Utah since 2018. Of those funds, $48,458 went to the St. Regis Deer Valley in Park City. The resort promises to transport guests to a “world of extravagant discretion” and offers a “private ski beach.” Also included in Kelly’s PAC spending was $306 to Snowmobile Adventures.

Kelly spokesman Matthew Stroia had no comment.

Montana was the preferred destination of Rep. Tom Reed. Since 2015, the New York Republican’s Excelsior PAC spent more than $58,000 on fishing, whitewater rafting and lodging. That included $48,118 at the Big Sky Resort in Big Sky, Montana. Another chunk of that total — $9,983 — went to whitewater rafting activities at Geyser Whitewater Expeditions, fly fishing at Gallatin River Guides and snowmobiling at Two Top Snowmobile.

“Those expenses were for eight Excelsior PAC fundraising events which were transparently reported in compliance with FEC rules,” Reed spokesman Andrew Wayne said.

Rep. John Moolenaar spent $22,839 from 2017 through 2019 from his leadership PAC on ski and snowmobile activities, lodging at the Four Seasons, and catering in and around Vail, Colorado. The Michigan Republican’s committee, called Together United for Liberty, Integrity and Prosperity PAC, last week reported spending an additional $15,000 in Vail in January.

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

Not much left for candidates

Luxury accommodations or recreation to attract contributors have a downside, however: There’s less money left after expenses to donate to the political party or other candidates — the stated purpose for leadership PACs’ existence.

An Issue One analysis of FEC data found Kind’s Badger PAC spent just 36 percent of its total expenditures since 2011 on political contributions. Since its inception in 2015, Moolenaar’s TULIP PAC also spent 36 percent of its total spending on other political candidates and groups.

“Members of Congress get away with fueling a lavish lifestyle with money that is supposed to go toward elections,” said Maguire, the CREW research director.

Kelly’s PAC spent a bit more on political contributions — 49 percent since 2011. Conaway’s topped him, spending 54 percent on other candidates or party committees since 2011, Issue One found.

“When only a small percentage of leadership PAC spending goes toward political contributions, that can raise questions about how lawmakers are actually spending their leadership PAC money,” Beckel said. “While some may claim that fundraising events at high-end locations are necessary political expenses, that argument holds less water if the bulk of spending by a particular leadership PAC is simply covering the expenses associated with an endless string of fundraisers at exclusive resorts and fancy restaurants.”