U.S. Rep. Ron Lewis spent more than $60,000 in campaign funds last year not running for re-election.
In the months after Lewis, R-Cecilia, dropped out of the race, his campaign paid for restaurant meals, catering, hotels, flowers, Christmas cards, gifts for friends, cell phones, car fuel and maintenance, photography and $13,000 "loyalty awards" for a top aide, among other expenses.
Federal elections law allows departing members of Congress to tap their campaign funds for certain expenses even after they've ended their campaigns — and some do. U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., abandoned his re-election bid in July and since has spent about $4,000 in campaign donations on Washington meals and airline tickets.
However, the law prohibits congressmen from diverting donations for their "personal use," which raises questions about whether an expensive steak dinner, for instance, was for work or pleasure.
Lewis, a seven-term congressman from Hardin County, withdrew his name from the ballot on Jan. 28, 2008, minutes before the candidate filing deadline. He endorsed his chief of staff, Daniel London, who himself dropped out weeks later in favor of the eventual winner, Republican Brett Guthrie.
No longer a candidate, Lewis still had $447,429 in donations to pay for a campaign.
The law mandates that inactive candidates give their campaign funds to a non-profit charity, a political party or other candidates. While they're doing that, they can spend what's necessary to wind down the campaign, such as refunding donations on request.
But they can't spend campaign donations for their personal use, which can prohibit meals, travel, vehicle expenses, clothes, gifts and event tickets. The Federal Elections Commission reviews this sort of spending on a case-by-case basis to determine if it's personal.
"Personal use means any use of funds ... to fulfill a commitment, obligation or expense of any person that would exist irrespective of the candidate's campaign or duties as a federal officeholder," the law states.
It's "a cardinal rule" of campaign finance that politicians cannot use donations for their personal benefit, "because otherwise, you basically just have people giving your elected officials a bribe," said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan watchdog in Washington.
The law does include an exemption, McGehee said: Inactive candidates who still hold federal office can spend campaign funds on expenses related to their duties, such as flying to an official function.
The FEC is generous with this exemption, McGehee said. For example, congressmen are known to classify dinner at an upscale restaurant as a "legislative planning session," she said.
"While the rules are clear on the books that this should not be used for personal benefit, the FEC generally interprets them with great leeway for members of Congress," McGehee said. "Basically, as long as they can offer a halfway plausible explanation, they're allowed to do pretty much whatever they want with this money."
In a brief interview, Lewis said that's what he did; he used some of his remaining campaign funds for the necessary expenses of representing Kentucky's 2nd House District until the 110th Congress ended early this year.
The majority of his money went to donor refunds, charities or other Republican candidates or parties around the country, Lewis said. Most recently, he gave $4,000 to U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., days after Wilson screamed "You lie!" at President Barack Obama during a congressional address.
"I've been trying to give it all away," Lewis said.
Lewis referred questions about his other campaign spending — for meals, gifts, loyalty awards and other items — to London, his former House aide who tried to succeed him in Congress.
London is the bookkeeper for Lewis' dwindling campaign account, which held $20,322 as of Sept. 30, according to campaign records.
But London did not return calls seeking comment. London's attorney, Bernadette Sargeant of Washington, called the Herald-Leader to say that London does not want to discuss the campaign's spending.
Here is how Lewis used his campaign funds, from the day he quit the race to early this year:
■ London received $37,000 from campaign funds, including two $13,000 "loyalty awards" — the explanation given in campaign records — and $1,000 monthly payments for 11 months for handling the account's paperwork.
London made $142,048 a year in salary as Lewis' chief of staff until he quit that job in January 2008 to run for Congress. After he withdrew from the race, London returned to Lewis' House payroll as an administrative assistant and collected $122,374 in salary for the rest of 2008, according to House pay records.
■ Restaurant meals in Kentucky and Washington that cost a total of $2,069, including a $300 meal at McCormick and Schmick's Seafood Restaurant and a $254 meal at Bobby Van's Steakhouse, both in the nation's capital. Some meals, such as the one at the steakhouse, are listed in campaign records as "staff meetings."
■ Unspecified gifts, mostly purchased at the House and Senate gift shops ($1,320), flowers ($327) and Christmas cards ($3,635). Campaign records list some of these as "gifts for supporters" but it does not identify the recipients.
■ Cell phones ($2,537), hotel rooms in and around Washington ($3,754), photography ($6,427) and catering at the Capitol Hill Club, a private restaurant next to the Republican National Committee's headquarters ($1,092).
The FEC would have to review Lewis' post-dropout spending to determine if it was allowable, spokesman Christian Hilland said. He declined to discuss specific examples of Lewis' spending.
"Anyone can file a complaint against the campaign if they think there's a problem," Hilland said.