WASHINGTON — Over the past two years, deep-pocketed donors to Kentucky Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield helped the Hopkinsville lawmaker and his guests enjoy $24,000 worth of meals at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel, where Hollywood television and movie industry executives schmooze over drinks.
Donors also chipped in $27,000 to help Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, and his associates sit in the shadows of the legendary twin spires as they watched horse races at a Churchill Downs fund-raiser.
Through both lawmakers' leadership political action committees — funds established by a member of Congress to support other candidates — lobbyists and such industry leaders as AT&T and Lockheed Martin contributed roughly half a million dollars to the two congressmen. They in turn hosted lavish fund-raisers, according to Federal Election Commission records and an analysis by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative-journalism organization.
In 2007, the House and Senate banned lawmakers from taking gifts from lobbyists and associated companies. But donors can still give to leadership PACs.
Lawmakers can make direct contributions to federal and non-federal candidates, fund independent expenditures to advocate for or against a particular candidate, and pay for operational expenses such as travel related to maintaining the PAC and raising money.
Campaign funds, which are governed under different FEC guidelines, can't be spent for personal use by a candidate and his or her campaign committee.
Nebulous, and at times unenforced, congressional policies regarding leadership PACs clear the way for lawmakers and lobbyists to use the money to bond at resorts after steak dinners, go to horse races and make large political donations.
According to ProPublica's analysis, in the past three election cycles, lobbyists and special interests poured $355 million into leadership PACs, making them the second-largest source of political money for 70 percent of the sitting members of Congress and at least a dozen former members.
Traditionally, recipients transfer the bulk of the largesse to less fortunate candidates to help with their campaigns. For example, during the past two years, Kentucky Republican and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell contributed roughly 74 percent of the $888,707 his Bluegrass Committee PAC raised to other candidates, including $1,000 to Friends of Trey Grayson in 2007 and $10,000 to former Rep. Anne Northup's failed re-election bid.
Rogers gave just more than 50 percent of the $396,084 his Help America's Leaders PAC raised to other GOP candidates, including $10,000 to McConnell and $10,000 to Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green. Whitfield gave roughly a third of the $110,461 his Thoroughbred PAC raised to other candidates such as Northup.
"The money that I have raised on behalf of my leadership PAC is of no benefit to me personally or my own re-election efforts," Rogers said. "Rather, every dollar raised and spent is solely to help other Republican candidates across the country with their own fund-raising needs."
Sometimes lawmakers opt to spend a much larger slice of the pie on high-priced fundraiser-themed getaways to deluxe spas, resorts, casinos and amusement parks, or use the money in other ways campaign finance experts and the FEC find questionable.
"Even if it is for fund-raising, it is a corrupting practice to begin with because you're saying, 'I, as a member of Congress, am going to tap into my special influence to help colleagues.' Why not give the money directly to the candidate?" said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center. The money shouldn't be "used to pad your lifestyle and use it to travel around the country to pay for travel when you don't want to open up a campaign account to do so."
Former North Carolina senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards used $114,000 in 2006 and 2007 from his PAC to pay the firm of Rielle Hunter, the woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair, to make a campaign video, the ProPublica analysis found. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., used $64,500 from his PAC to commission a portrait of himself. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., recently acknowledged using at least $23,138 from his PAC to pay Cynthia Hampton, a campaign aide with whom he was having an affair and the wife of an employee in his Senate office.
Earlier this year, the FEC sent a letter to House and Senate leadership recommending that the personal use of leadership PAC funds be prohibited.
To date, the FEC has received no response.
"Congress has never extended the personal-use restrictions to leadership PACs. The FEC has looked at this over the years and has determined they don't have the statutory ability to address this. It will take an act of Congress," said Michael Toner, an election law expert and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. "It's unclear whether Congress would have the appetite to change the federal election laws in the near future. The reality is, there hasn't been a lot of enthusiasm for extending personal-use restrictions to leadership PACs, and it's a pretty bipartisan sentiment."
Five of the eight members of the Kentucky congressional delegation have leadership PACs. Of that group, all but Whitfield donated at least 50 percent or more of the funds raised to other candidates.
Lawmakers say they are satisfied their leadership PACs' fund-raising efforts are helping support Republican campaigns for the House and Senate when races are competitive, and the candidates need resources. The fund-raising efforts are above board, they said.
"The PAC has only been around for a few years, and there have been efforts to grow its resources," said Whitfield spokeswoman Kristin Walker. "It's anticipated that, this election cycle, the PAC will be able to do much more than it has done in previous years to help candidates."