WASHINGTON — During the past two years, deep-pocketed donors to Sen. Saxby Chambliss have helped the Georgia Republican enjoy a quarter of a million dollars worth of golf outings at some of the nation’s ritziest resorts.
Through their contributions to the senator’s Republican Majority Fund — a type of leadership political action committee established by a member of Congress to support other candidates — lobbyists and such industry leaders as Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Lockheed Martin footed the bill for Chambliss’ rounds of golf at California’s Pebble Beach, with its sweeping views of Monterey Bay. There were tourneys at fabled The Greenbrier in West Virginia and jaunts at the Breakers Palm Beach and Ritz-Carlton Naples’ sun-kissed fairways in Florida.
Chambliss’ affinity for golf is so widely known in political circles that former President George W. Bush joked about it during a 2003 golf fundraiser for the Georgia lawmaker. In 2005, the senator missed a highly sensitive Iraq war intelligence briefing to tee off with Tiger Woods.
In all, since 2007, Chambliss has used PAC money to golf at roughly a dozen of the nation’s top resorts, according to Federal Election Commission records and an analysis by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
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“The (Republican Majority Fund) has traditionally raised money through golfing events, which, by their nature, are more expensive to host than other types of fundraising events,” said Bronwyn Lance-Chester, Chambliss’ communications director. “This is a perfectly legal entity, and many senators have similar fundraising organizations.”
Though in 2007 both the House and Senate banned lawmakers from taking gifts from lobbyists and associated companies, 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 rounds of golf, steak dinners and large political donations.
According to ProPublica’s analysis, in the past three election cycles, lobbyists and special interests poured $355 million into these 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 pass on the bulk of the largess 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 $10,000 to Chambliss.
Chambliss in turn gave roughly a quarter of the nearly $780,000 his leadership PAC raised to other GOP candidates, including $7,500 to McConnell and $2,500 to retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Rick Goddard for his failed congressional bid against Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga.
Sometimes lawmakers opt to spend a much larger slice of the pie on high-priced fundraiser-themed getaways to deluxe spas and resorts, casinos and amusement parks, or to use the money in other ways that both campaign finance experts and the FEC find questionable.
“Even if it is for fundraising, 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,” she said.
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 whom he was having an extramarital affair with, to make a campaign video, according to the ProPublica analysis. 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 $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.
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.”
Chambliss isn’t the only member of the Georgia delegation to use his leadership PAC money on high-priced fetes. Fellow Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson spent $128,453, or roughly 26 percent of the $485,008 his 21st Century Majority Fund raised, on entertainment, travel and events, according to staff records.
The bulk of the entertainment money was spent on Isakson’s annual two-day golf tournament fundraiser at the Atlanta Country Club and East Lake Golf Club.
“It’s one of those situations where you have to spend a little money to raise money,” said Isakson spokeswoman Sheridan Watson. “Sen. Isakson created the 21st Century Majority Fund to raise money for Republican candidates. He feels the PAC has been successful and responsible in meeting that goal, with 58 percent of the funds going to campaign contributions.”
Eleven of the 15 members of the state’s congressional delegation have leadership PACs. Of that group, all but Chambliss directly donated at least 50 percent or more of the funds raised to other candidates. Rep. John Linder, R-Lawrenceville, and Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, gave nearly all of the money their leadership PACs raised to other candidates.
Chambliss says he’s satisfied that his leadership PAC’s fundraising efforts are helping support Republican campaigns when races are competitive and the candidates need resources, and that the efforts are aboveboard.
“All (Republican Majority Fund) expenses and contributions have always been fully and transparently disclosed,” Lance-Chester said. “Every RMF fundraising event has been appropriately conducted, all expenses have been closely examined and all reporting has been accurate and transparent.”