The 10 News Investigators examined how U.S. Congress members spent their lush campaign accounts and found some local lawmakers were taking advantage of legal loopholes to compensate family members - and sometimes themselves.
TAMPA BAY, Florida - While nine out of 10 Americans think members of Congress are doing a lousy job in Washington D.C., there's one area lawmakers continue to excel: fundraising.
"Running a campaign is a business," said U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Lakeland), who raised nearly $1 million in 2012, scaring off any potential challenger. "Money is the side of politics that probably concerns everybody because it takes so much to get elected."
But the 10 News Investigators examined how Congress members and U.S. Senators were spending their lush campaign accounts, and found some local lawmakers were taking advantage of legal loopholes to compensate their family members - and sometimes themselves.
Working in partnership with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), 10 News identified questionable - but ultimately legal - expenses from campaign accounts.
One example was U.S. Rep Vern Buchanan (R-Longboat Key), who - according to federal records - used his campaign account to pay his sister-in-law, Yvonne Buchanan, $232,082 since 2005 to act as campaign bookkeeper. The Congressman also rented campaign and storage space from three companies he owns: Jamatt Properties, 130 Tamiami Trial LLC, and Auto Central Services Inc. Rent payments have totaled more than $110,000 in campaign funds to his own companies.
"We found many members of Congress use their positions to benefit their family members," said CREW's executive director, Melanie Sloan. "They hire their family members on their campaign payroll."
Buchanan declined numerous interview requests, only providing a written statement via a spokesperson that read:
"The Buchanan campaign fully complies with federal campaign finance laws and publicly discloses all contributions and expenses. Yvonne is the campaign's bookkeeper. The campaign leases a small administrative office from Auto Central Services and storage from Jamat (sic)."
The campaign responded to follow-up questions with, "You have our statement. We have nothing to add to it."
"Mr. Buchanan has been one of the least-ethical members of Congress and obviously doesn't want any media or watchdog groups looking at him too closely," Sloan said.
CREW has named Buchanan to their "Most Corrupt" in Congress list six years in a row.
In stark contrast, however, Congressman Ross agreed to come to the 10 News studios to answer any questions regarding his campaign's spending.
CREW and 10 News discovered Ross' campaign paid $17,470 in consulting fees since last October to "Organization Management LLC," a company controlled by his wife, Cindy Ross. Although Cindy's name doesn't show up in campaign reports, state records indicate she is the owner.
"Transparency is everything," Ross said, explaining his wife acted as the campaign's chief Florida fundraiser during that time. "If you look at what we paid her, compared to what I paid a (Washington D.C.) fundraiser for two years at $101,000, I think my contributors should be pretty satisfied that I've got great service at tremendously less cost using her."
The Congressman's 2012 personal financial disclosure also failed to report any income from the campaign above $200 for his wife, even though Friends of Dennis Ross paid Organization Management LLC $3,348 during that time. After checking with his accountant, Ross told 10 News it was because the LLC reported no net income.
"Going out and raising money is one of the hardest things to do, and it (even) gets a little awkward at times," Ross said. "Even though you've got freedom of speech, speech is not free to publish."
Ross also took advantage of a "Leadership PAC," or political action committee, to pay for personal expenses not otherwise covered by work or campaign accounts.
Earlier this year, the Friends of Dennis Ross campaign account transferred $5,000 (which could previously only be used for campaign-related expenses) to his Leadership PAC, "Taxpayers Incensed by Government Excess," so he could use the money any way he wanted.
Since taking office in January 2011, Ross has used Leadership PAC money to pay for expenses such as a room at the Denver Ritz-Carlton, $1,200 in personal expenses during a trip to Africa, and thousands more in airfare.
"The Leadership PAC is essentially an operating account to further your interests as a member of Congress," Ross said, adding that many expenses have to do with socializing and developing relationships with colleagues.
But CREW disagrees - and has plenty of company.
"There really ought to be - quickly instituted - a ban on use of Leadership PAC funds for personal use," Sloan said. "The Federal Election Commission has been advocating such a ban for years, and Congress has been refusing to pass it."
Sloan says campaign finance laws are like the "fox guarding the henhouse," since an act of Congress is required to institute any campaign reforms.
"Campaign finance reform will always be an issue," said Ross, who stated he has gone out of his way to comply with - and respect - campaign finance laws. "But there will always be somebody who takes advantage of it."
OTHER LOCAL LAWMAKERS
CREW also helped identify numerous other "questionable" transactions from local lawmakers.
Former U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Brooksville) announced her retirement from Congress in April 2010, but activity in her campaign account has continued for years. Federal records indicate in July 2010, the campaign spent $890 on an iPad. And it has paid thousands of dollars to Verizon Wireless too.
Despite multiple attempts, 10 News was unable to reach Brown-Waite for comment.
Former U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, who last ran for office in 2004, spent thousands of dollars from his campaign account on Buccaneers and Devil Rays tickets in late 2006. His son had already been elected to replace him, but on Dec. 29, 2006, Bilirakis reported spending an additional $1,976 for Buccaneers tickets, $1,562 for Devil Rays tickets, and $1,389 for "shipping expense for personal items."
Reached by telephone, Bilirakis told 10 News he was always "very careful" of how he spent his campaign funds and didn't remember what the ticket purchases were for. Bilirakis also said "a lot of spending could appear questionable," so he would often run purchases by an ethics committee.
CREW says campaign funds can be legally donated to charities or other political funds post-retirement, but some lawmakers find ways to use the money for personal purposes.
"There's nothing in the law to require these accounts close," Sloan said of outgoing lawmakers.
Federal records also indicate U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) and Rich Nugent (R-Brooksville) also purchased tickets to sporting events in recent years, but there were no indicators any of the expenditures were outside of normal fundraising activities. Nugent also does not maintain a Leadership PAC, while Castor's, "Athena PAC," is relatively dormant.
Late Congressman Bill Young (R-Indian Shores), who seldom faced a difficult challenge for re-election, had few questionable expenses in more than a decade's worth of campaign reports analyzed. However, CREW was critical of Young in its "Family Affairs" report following the 2010 election cycle.
CREW reports Young earmarked more than $16 million in federal funds for his sons' agencies between 2008 and 2010:
- Son Billy Young worked at the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) in Largo, which received a $3,630,400 earmark in fiscal year 2008, a $4,950,000 earmark in 2009, and a $3,600,000 earmark in 2010.
- Son, Patrick, worked as a security administrator at the Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) facility in St. Petersburg, which received a $4,400,000 earmark in fiscal year 2008.
CREW also reported Bill Young's congressional office paid his daughter-in-law, Ashley Abreu Young, $141,947 in salary as a case assistant from 2007.
Fellow Pinellas Co. Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-Tarpon Springs), replaced his father, Mike, in 2006 and also landed in CREW's "Family Affairs" report. He steered a 2010 earmark of $350,000 to All Children's Hospital, where he is the honorary chairman of the Greek Children's Fund.
Bilirakis' campaign also addressed 10 News questions regarding family member reimbursements that had little or no explanation in federal filings. But a spokesperson said the Congressman's wife, Eva, and mother, Evelyn, received payment from the campaign as reimbursement for either campaign events or nonprofit donations.
As for Florida's U.S. Senators, CREW said excessive self-reimbursement can possibly indicate an elected official is kicking money back to his or her own pocket. CREW said questions will always be raised when money flows through a candidate's hands.
Both Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) reimbursed themselves more than $10,000 each in recent years. Nelson's campaign also reimbursed his wife several thousand dollars for expenses.
But both Rubio and Nelson's camp said those numbers were in-line with expensive $20+ million statewide campaigns.
Rubio's campaign added that they follow the Senate Ethics Committee's direction on what qualifies as campaign expenses.
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