House lawmakers use campaign money for membership dues to plush clubs

Federal Election Commission automatically deems spending on dues to nonpolitical social clubs as prohibited personal use

Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., spent campaign funds on membership fees to a social club in Birmingham. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., spent campaign funds on membership fees to a social club in Birmingham. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 8, 2020 at 2:59pm

Several House members have reported paying for membership dues to luxurious social clubs from their campaign coffers, expenditures the Federal Election Commission automatically deems as prohibited personal use.

Rep. Terri A. Sewell’s campaign spent more than $2,800 on dues to City Club Birmingham and $222 in similar fees to The City Club of Washington, both of which are owned by ClubCorp USA Inc.

Sewell, an Alabama Democrat, has spent just under $9,000 overall at the social club in Birmingham since 2017, which offers an Enomatic wine dispenser, upscale bar, dining and fitness facilities. Additional campaign money was spent on fundraisers and meals. The Alabama club describes itself as “the premier business and social center for the city’s professional elite.”

Representatives for Sewell did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Daniel Crenshaw, a Texas Republican, disclosed more than $3,200 on membership dues to ClubCorp USA Inc. since 2019. Justin Discigil, Crenshaw’s communications director, said the filings, which are required by law every quarter, were misreported.

“Our campaign does not spend resources on membership dues. This was a clerical error and an amendment has been filed to correct the FEC website. Those expenditures were for campaign events and unrelated to membership dues,” Discigil said in his capacity as spokesman for Crenshaw’s campaign.

The Federal Election Commission and federal law prohibits members from using campaign money for personal use, including spending those funds on dues to country clubs or other organizations without a political affiliation. Lawmakers can spend campaign money at social clubs for specific campaign events, but that doesn’t cover membership dues.

“However, this exception does not cover payments made to maintain unlimited access to such a facility, even if access if (sic) maintained to facilitate fundraising activity,” according to the FEC rule. “The exception is limited to payments for the costs of a specific fundraising event.”

Rep. French Hill, R-Ark.

Daniel Weiner, a former FEC attorney and deputy director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center, said, “You’re not supposed to be using campaign funds to just pay your club membership.”

Weiner added that the expenditures could have been misreported as dues when they were spent on a facility fee to hold a campaign event. He stressed the importance of having proper campaign counsel.

“One of the things that this does suggest is the importance of having a good campaign lawyer,” Weiner said.

Weiner said it also matters whether the membership dues are recurring — Sewell and Crenshaw each have more than one expenditure for dues to their respective clubs.

Other lawmakers have only reported one dues payment to their clubs.

Rep. French Hill’s campaign spent $248 in membership dues to the Metropolitan Club New York, an exclusive private club nestled in the heart of Manhattan. The high-end club requires that men wear a jacket and tie; women must wear dresses or comparable attire. The club’s first president was J.P. Morgan.

“An expense of $248.60 paid on April 26, 2019, was listed as membership dues in New York in error rather than the correct description of a fundraising dinner in Washington, D.C., and an amended report has been filed with the FEC,” J.R. Davis, a spokesperson for Hill's campaign, said in an email.

The Arkansas Republican was recently appointed to the Congressional Oversight Commission, an entity charged with examining the spending of the multitrillion-dollar coronavirus relief package.

Since 2016, French Hill for Arkansas, the lawmaker’s campaign committee, has spent more than $7,500 on food, drink, lodging, meetings and fundraising events at the Metropolitan Club New York and its counterpart in Washington. The Metropolitan Club of Washington is described on its website as “one of Washington’s oldest and most valued private institutions.”

Rep. Al Lawson, a Florida Democrat, spent $221 in campaign funds on membership fees at the Governors Club, an upscale private club in Tallahassee, Florida, near the state Capitol. The club offers “cigar dinners” and “champagne tastings.” Since 2016, Lawson has expended more than $3,600 on food, drinks and fundraisers at the club.

“Rep. Lawson maintains a Governor’s Club membership for the purpose of cultivating potential donors,” someone identified only as “Communications Director” for the campaign said in an email. “The entry in question was likely for a campaign-related business meal.”

Andrew Herman, a lawyer who represents lawmakers in FEC and congressional ethics investigations, said if a member makes an effort to correct misreporting quickly, the matter usually won’t be taken up by investigators.

“But if they’re trying to get donors to pay for memberships to country clubs, and they were doing that on purpose in contravention of the regulations, then that certainly could be an issue,” Herman said.

Tom Rust, a spokesman for the House Ethics Committee, had no comment.

William Beaman, a spokesman for the Office of Congressional Ethics, had no comment.