Nunes used political donations to buy $15k Celtics tickets, lavish dinners

PHOTO: Rep. Devin Nunes leaves after Senior Adviser Jared Kushner meets with the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., July 25, 2017.PlayBrendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images, FILE
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House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., used funds from New PAC, his leadership political action committee, to purchase steak dinners, limo rides, and nearly $15,000 in Boston Celtics basketball games tickets, Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings show.

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The expenditures were first reported by the Fresno Bee and do not appear to break any federal laws.

A leadership PAC like Nunes' New PAC is a separate pot of money from a lawmaker's own campaign fund, intended to help politicians strategically finance other candidates' campaigns. In recent years, however, leadership PACs have increasingly been used to pay for lavish trips, meals and hotel stays, rather than to support political allies.

Nunes’ New PAC expenditures have been particularly conspicuous. FEC filings show that New PAC spent a total of $14,638 at TD Garden, the home of the Boston Celtics, on three occasions between February and May 2017.

New PAC dropped an additional $3,593 at the 4-star Omni Parker House hotel on May 8, the same day that the fund purchased tickets for the Celtics' playoffs against the Washington Wizards.

2018 quarterly filings for New PAC show a number of more recent luxury expenditures. On March 9, bills at seven different restaurants in Las Vegas totaled over $7,000.

Among them: $2,365 at The Dorsey, a cocktail bar offering to serve Dom Perignon and other fine liquors directly from a disco ball as part of its "Disco Punch Bowl Pairings" special.

Exactly a month ago, on June 19, the PAC charged $5,075 to Gold Coast Limousine service and $4,408 at the Sea Venture hotel in Pismo Beach, Calif.

Several restaurants and luxury hotels show up repeatedly on the congressman’s filings. New PAC has spent over $10,000 since July of last year in frequent visits to The Prime Rib D.C., an upscale steakhouse. The restaurant boasts tuxedoed waitstaff intended to “evoke the elegant supper clubs of 1940’s Manhattan.”

The PAC is funded by typical GOP donors such as Koch Industries.

The largest donation to the PAC in 2017-2018 fiscal year came from Northrop Grumman, a defense company that was the fifth-largest arms trader in the world as of 2015, followed by tobacco company Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris). Other top donors include defense companies Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Co, and California-based dairy, almond and wine industry lobbyists.

Meanwhile, Nunes has raised over $7 million for the Devin Nunes Campaign Committee, the PAC that will fund his 2018 election in a safely Republican race. This week, he used his campaign PAC to fund an ad released Wednesday that accuses the Fresno Bee, a local daily, of publishing 'fake news.'

"The Fresno Bee has worked closely with radical left-wing groups to promote numerous fake news stories about me," he says in the ad, which is over two minutes long and is airing on radio and TV outlets.

Calling the publication's staff “the Bee’s band of creeping correspondents,” Dunes criticized recent reporting on a winery in which he's an investor, describing the articles as a “textbook example of fake news.”

The Fresno Bee published an editorial in response to the ad, and Joe Kieta, editor of the Fresno Bee, defended the paper's reporting in a statement to ABC News.

"Just because Nunes doesn’t want the story told does not make it 'false,'" Kieta said in the statement. "For all his complaints about 'fake news,' Rep. Nunes has failed to identify a single factual error in our work — while making numerous false statements himself."

On Thursday, the Bee published an article detailing Nunes’ recent spending out of the leadership PAC, drawing on FEC filings and reporting by watchdog groups.

In a statement to ABC News, Anthony Ratekin, Nunes’ Chief of Staff, characterized the reporting as "another baseless attack" on the congressman.

"[The report] insinuates wrongdoing while actually showing that Rep. Nunes has broken no rules and properly reported all expenses for his fundraising events, much of whose income he gives to help elect other Republicans," Ratekin said.

By law, officeholders cannot use campaign funds for "personal use." However, leadership PACs are less closely regulated; the Senate ethics committee does not claim jurisdiction over leadership PACs, and while House ethics rules state that the "personal use" ban applies to leadership PACs, lawmakers are rarely taken to task for lavish spending written off as fundraising expenditures.

A report published Thursday by the Campaign Legal Center and Issue One details the frequent use of Leadership PACs for luxury spending.

Leadership PACs such as New PAC were originally created by the FEC in 1978 in order to allow officeholders to make contributions to the campaigns of congressional colleagues. However, today, less than half of Leadership PAC money is used to fund political allies; instead, the scathing report concludes, "leadership PACs look more like slush funds to subsidize officeholder luxury lifestyles."

The lion’s share of luxury expenditures are filed as "fundraising expenses." The report’s authors noted that lavish trips to Disneyland and beach resorts were written off as ‘fundraising’ and "perpetuate a never-ending fundraising cycle."

Members of Congress with leadership PACs frequent many of the same tony hangouts. Over the past five years, leadership PAC bills at the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican social club in Washington, have totaled at least $437,000, the report found.

Nunes’ July quarterly filing shows that between April and June of this year, he spent just shy of $20,000 at the club, including a $13,773 tab on June 4th.

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