Lawmakers Bill Taxpayers For TVs, Cameras, Lexus
By LOUISE RADNOFSKY and T.W. FARNAM
[Congress Expenses photo] Bloomberg News
WASHINGTON -- Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings spent $24,730 in taxpayer money last year to lease a 2008 luxury Lexus hybrid sedan. Ohio Rep. Michael Turner expensed a $1,435 digital camera. Eni Faleomavaega, the House delegate from American Samoa, bought two 46-inch Sony TVs.
The expenditures were legal, properly accounted for and drawn from allowances the U.S. government grants to lawmakers. Equipment purchased with office expense accounts must be returned to the House or the federal General Services Administration when a lawmaker leaves office.
But as British politicians come under widening scorn for spending public money on everything from candy bars to moat-dredging, an examination of U.S. lawmakers' expense claims shows Washington's elected officials have also used public funds for eye-catching purchases.
* Lawmakers Have Long Rewarded Their Aides With Bonuses
U.S. politicians, unlike their counterparts in Great Britain, can't bill taxpayers for personal living expenses. The U.S. Treasury gives them an allowance to cover "official and representational expenses," according to congressional rules, and the lawmakers enjoy a fair amount of discretion in how they use the funds.
The Senate and House release volumes of the reimbursement requests for these allowances, but do not make them available electronically. A Wall Street Journal review of thousands of pages of these records for 2008 expenses showed most lawmaker spending flowed to areas such as staff salaries, travel, office rent and supplies, and printing and mailing.
But it also turned up spending on an array of products, from the car leases and electronics to a high-end laptop computer and $22 cellphone holder. Rep. Howard Berman expensed $84,000 worth of personalized calendars, printed by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, for his constituents. A spokeswoman for Mr. Berman, a California Democrat, didn't return requests for comment.
The records show that some lawmakers spent heavily in the final months of the year to draw down allowances before the end of December -- a time when U.S. households were paring their budgets and lawmakers were criticizing Detroit auto executives for taking private aircraft to Washington to plead their case for taxpayer funding.
Rep. Hastings, a Democrat, and Rep. Turner, a Republican, made their purchases in the third quarter. Rep. Faleomavaega, a Democrat, bought the TVs for $1,473 apiece in mid-November. Spokespeople for the three didn't return requests for comment.
House members get a government expense allowance of $1.3 million to $1.9 million a year. Senators get $2.9 million to $4.5 million. The disparity is based on several factors, with lawmakers whose home states are far from Washington, for example, typically receiving more to cover their higher travel expenses.
If lawmakers don't seek reimbursement for all of their allowance money for the year, the remainder doesn't roll over to the next year, but stays with the Treasury. The review showed that the increased year-end spending went not only toward equipment but also to fund year-end "bonuses" to aides. The average House aide earned 17% more in the fourth quarter of the year, when the bonuses were paid, than in previous quarters, according to an earlier Journal analysis. Payments ranged from a few hundred dollars to $14,000.
The current system of governing lawmaker expenses was designed to bring the system greater transparency and public accountability. Scandals over congressional mismanagement -- including penalty-free overdrafts at the House bank and spending abuses at the Congressional post office -- led to new House rules in 1996 that consolidated lawmakers' various expense accounts into a single allowance.
Even so, the accounts aren't easy to view or parse. House lawmakers submit receipts and records to the chief administrative officer, who publishes a statement each quarter that runs more than 3,000 pages. Each member's expense ledger takes up about six pages and includes a short description of each expense, its amount and the date incurred. The Senate publishes two volumes every six months, with descriptions that are less detailed than those published by the House.
Members of the public can request specific receipts, but lawmakers aren't required to provide them. Officials said they are exploring the possibility of publishing the information electronically but have no immediate plans to do so.
"This information is not widely available to the public," said Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. "This is stuff that every constituent should be able to know."
The House and Senate administrators can deny reimbursement if they deem an expense request to be inappropriate. Jeff Ventura, spokesman for House chief administrative officer Daniel Beard, said no formal records are kept on the number of claims deemed inappropriate, but that such instances are rare. The Senate operates similarly.
Staff salaries are the largest cost in most members' budgets, according to published details. Travel is another big cost center, with many lawmakers claiming funds for commercial air or train travel to and from their district, and for mileage on their cars or personal planes while they are there.
Around 100 lawmakers lease cars using their official allowances. The majority lease American cars. Sport-utility vehicles, such as Ford Escapes and Chevy Tahoes, are among the most popular choices.
[Opaque Accounting table]
The fourth-quarter congressional expense records, bound in three thick beige-colored volumes, show that Rep. Rodney Alexander of Louisiana paid $20,000 for a 2009 lease on a Toyota Highlander, a hybrid SUV. Mr. Alexander said in an interview that the vehicle was for his state director's official business. The Highlander was appropriate, he said, given the size of his district and House rules setting fuel-efficiency standards for leased vehicles. "We have a large district, the largest in Louisiana," he said. "We didn't want to lease a bicycle for him to ride on."
Other expenses included five-figure printing bills. Rahm Emanuel, who resigned from his Illinois congressional seat in January to become President Barack Obama's chief of staff, recorded a $33,000 printing expense in the fourth quarter. An aide to Mr. Emanuel said it was for an official mailing sent to every household in his district.
The records show several examples of spending on high-end electronics.
Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, spent $2,793 on a Panasonic Toughbook laptop, which is marketed to the military, in September, about three months before he lost his re-election bid in a December runoff. A lawyer for Mr. Jefferson, who is facing an unrelated federal bribery trial, declined to comment.
Some members detail small expenses. The office of Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Pennsylvania Democrat, described a $22 expenditure on a Liz Claiborne cellphone pouch. A spokeswoman for Mr. Fattah said it is standard for staff members to get a holder with their phone and that the pouch was "nothing fancy."
Other members itemized spending on everything from bottled water to pest control and office plants. The accounts of former Rep. Darlene Hooley, an Oregon Democrat, listed an $81 payment to the Plant Tender.
Ms. Hooley, who retired at the end of the last Congress, said her office had "tried to be as transparent as possible and report every little thing." Her expenses "would look a whole lot better if other people had done the same thing," she added.
Other expense explanations bore few details. The accounts for Rep. Tim Mahoney, a Florida Democrat, include an $11,000 payment on his House-issued credit card to cover airfare for him and an aide incurred in September, with the line "A/F Mahoney/Mitchell."
Mr. Mahoney, who lost his re-election bid, said in an interview that the line represented 13 trips over a two-month period. He is required to submit receipts for the card to the House, which decides how much information to publish. "As Congressman, I took every precaution to make sure that my office was fully in compliance with all ethics rules and financial reporting regulations," Mr. Mahoney added.
Many lawmakers don't spend their full allocation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) had about $57,000 remaining in her budget at the end of 2008. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) had $228,000.