'Political Slush Funds': The Last Loophole

Leadership PACs let politicians spend money freely on leisure outings.

ByABC News
September 25, 2009, 4:27 PM

Sept. 25, 2009— -- For people who love golf, the chance to play at the five-star Greenbrier resort in West Virginia is a dream come true. Especially if someone else pays for it.

That was the case this summer for two powerful members of Congress, House Republican Minority leader John Boehner of Ohio and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

Accompanied by top corporate lobbyists , the two golf-loving Republicans spent a luxurious weekend at the Greenbrier, the kinds of cozy gatherings new ethics reform laws were supposed to curb.

"You're seeing the quintessential Washington insider pay-to-play game," said Meredith McGehee, Policy Director at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

Many people assumed these types of outings were ended when Congress passed reforms in 2007. But those reforms didn't mention what has come to be an important source of funding for politicians: leadership political action committees, or PACs, whose money can be spent for almost any purpose, including golf.

Members of Congress are supposed to use their leadership PAC funds to support other politicians. But in the 2008 election cycle, Chambliss spent more money from his PAC on golf outings, $225,000, than on donations to other political campaigns, $204,000. On Capitol Hill, his leadership PAC is known to some as a golf PAC.

Click here to see ProPublica's database and find your congressman's leadership PAC.

Chambliss declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a statement he said he holds the golf outings only to raise money.

A spokesman for Boehner's PAC, The Freedom Project, also defended the spending as legitimate and said that through his PAC, he contributed "more than any other Republican in the House."

McGehee and others call leadership PACs modern-day slush funds. Some members of Congress use them for pretty much whatever they want, including subsidizing their lifestyles and hobbies.

In a joint report with the investigative journalism group ProPublica, ABC News found that members of Congress used leadership PAC money to pay for visits to ski resorts, casinos, Disney World and the Super Bowl. Senate Majority Harry Reid of Nevada used leadership PAC money to throw a $39,000 inaugural party. New York Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel ordered a $64,000 oil portrait of himself.

Reid spent 53 percent of his PAC money on campaigns he was supporting. That's $1.1 million.

More than 400 members of Congress now have opened their own leadership PACs, and there are virtually no limits on how they spend it, just as long as they don't spend it on their campaigns.

Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign's mistress was on the payroll of his Leadership PAC. And former North Carolina senator and presidential candidate John Edwards used leadership PAC money to pay his mistress $114,000 to produce a series of videos.

More than 400 members of Congress now have opened their own leadership PACs, and there are virtually no limits on how they spend it.

Federal Election Laws even allow members of the Congress to spend the money on themselves or their friends and families. Senate rules do not even mention leadership PACs, although hundreds of millions of dollars pour into these funds every election cycle.

Lobbyist Jim Ervin might bristle at McGehee's use of the phrase slush fund, but he seems to agree in spirit.

"I think that it's more than appropriate for Senator Chambliss to do whatever he wants with the leadership PAC money. Certainly I think golf is completely acceptable," he said. Ervin and two of his clients – defense contractors Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics -- put $30,000 into Chambliss' leadership PAC in the last election cycle.

Leadership PACs give incumbents an unfair advantage because challengers typically can't raise the maximum amount of money allowed for their campaign committees, much less for a leadership PAC, said former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith."For the most part it's really kind of an incumbent racket," he said.

The FEC disclosure forms that leadership PACs file are so cursory that lawmakers don't have to disclose who participated or contributed at a PAC fund-raiser, the day the event was held or how much money was raised.

When Chambliss' leadership PAC ran up a $50,394 bill at the Ritz-Carlton Naples on Jan. 25, 2008, the only stated purpose was, "PAC EVENT/LODGING/BANQUET/GOLF."

Chambliss' love of golf is so legendary in Washington political circles that he has been teased for letting golf interfere with his political and legislative business.

In 2003, then-President Bush told a crowd at a golf fund-raiser for Chambliss that the senator had intercepted him on his way to the dais and said, "If you keep it short, we might be able to get a round of golf in."