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Sep 25, 2009

From Pebble Beach to the floor of the Senate, loosely regulated leadership PACs help lobbyists pour cash into the pockets of their favorite lawmakers. And it’s all legal.

By Marcus Stern and Jennifer LaFleur/Propublica

When it comes to golf, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) has champagne taste.

In California, he has putted with his back to the thundering surf near the 7th hole at Pebble Beach, where a round of golf costs $495. In Florida, he has driven the ball down the fairways of the Boca Raton Resort, with its signature island green on the 18th hole outside and elegant Waldorf Astoria décor inside.

These two are among the dozen premiere resorts where Chambliss played golf in 2007 and 2008 at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars. Yet, Chambliss is hardly rich. His net worth is between $181,006 and $415,000, according to his 2007 financial disclosure report, ranking him 91st in the Senate in terms of wealth.

Fortunately for Chambliss, his Republican Majority Fund, a so-called leadership political action committee, covers the costs of his golf hobby. The fund received $692,618 during the 2008 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Almost all of it came from lobbyists, political action committees (PACs) and corporate leaders.

In the past three election cycles, lobbyists and special interest groups poured $355 million into leadership PACs. In fact, individuals may give more to a lawmaker’s leadership PAC than to that lawmaker’s campaign committee.

Leadership PACs have grown steadily since they began cropping up in the 1970s. What separates them from campaign committees is that lawmakers are supposed to pass along the bulk of the money to other members of their party for their campaigns. But, legally, candidates are free to spend the leadership PAC money pretty much as they wish.

Of the $112 million that leadership PACs spent during the two-year campaign cycle that led up to the 2008 elections, less than half was passed on to candidates or party committees. The rest paid for entertainment, administrative costs, fundraising and other costs. It’s impossible to know for sure how the money was spent.

“Leadership PAC money can be used for just about anything,” said Paul Ryan, associate legal counsel for the non-partisan, non-profit Campaign Legal Center. “It’s definitely not limited to giving money to other candidates.”

All this is legal, even if it appears to make a mockery of the 2007 ethics reforms and the contribution limits at the very heart of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA).

Senate ethics rules don’t even mention leadership PACs. The Senate interprets that silence to mean its ethics committee as no jurisdiction over leadership PACs whatsoever. The House, on the other hand, extends the same personal spending rules for campaign committees to leadership PACs. However, there are no known instances in which the House ethics committee has enforced that policy.

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, says leadership PACs should be abolished.

“But that’s going to be very difficult because so many members of Congress have them now,” McGehee said. “Because they’re such useful political slush funds—money that a politician controls totally with very few rules governing how they’re used—it’s very difficult to find members who want to take that on.”

Former Commissioner of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) Brad Smith, who generally opposes tighter campaign finance rules, also favors getting rid of leadership PACs. He says they 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.

“For the most part it’s really kind of an incumbent racket,” said Smith, who’s now a professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio.

In March, the FEC’s six commissioners (three Democrats and three Republicans), sent Congress a list of legislative recommendations, including one to prohibit personal use of leadership PAC funds. So far, the FEC has not received a response.

“I am not hearing anything being done on the legislative front on leadership PACs,” said Craig Holman, the legislative representative of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.


Party Building or Fun and Games 

Democrats and Republicans alike use leadership PAC funds for play. Funds have been used for visits to Churchill Downs, Disney World and the Country Music Hall of Fame. They’ve paid for funerals, flowers and farewell parties—and just about everything else.

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 fundraiser, the day the event was held or how much money was raised.

“It’s hard to tell the personal from the political,” said Ellen Weintraub, whose term as FEC commissioner expired two years ago, but she is still serving while waiting for a replacement to be named.

“If a political committee spends money on food, flowers and tickets to sporting events, it depends on what they’re using them for. Those might be legitimate political expenditures in connection with a fundraising event. Or, if they used them to take their family members out to the ball game and bought flowers for their spouses then that would be personal use. But you can’t tell from looking at the expenditure reports.” When lawmakers leave Congress, they sometimes keep their leadership PACs or they hand them down like valuable heirlooms to their successors. Often, the same tight circle of lobbyists and fundraising professionals continue as the core of the organization.

Former Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma controlled the Republican Majority Fund from 1985 until he retired in 2005. When Nickles controlled the PAC it became known in Washington as a “golf PAC.” He then passed it along to Chambliss, who had been in the Senate for only two years. Controlling one of the top leadership PACs suddenly gave Chambliss a new, deep pocket into which lobbyists could pour money.

Like many former legislators, Nickles became a lobbyist after leaving the Senate. He quickly built the Nickles Group into one of the more successful Republican-oriented lobbying firms. Perhaps not surprisingly, Nickles and his clients contributed $52,500 to the Republican Majority Fund during the 2008 campaign cycle.

That helps pay for a lot of golf.


Chambliss’s Golf PAC 

An examination of Chambliss’s leadership PAC illustrates how these funds can breach the firewall between lobbyists and lawmakers that the 2007 gifts ban purported to erect.

Nearly a third of the more than $750,000 Chambliss’s PAC spent during the 2008 cycle went for golfing. Only a quarter of the fund’s expenditures-—about $200,000—went to help other GOP candidates.

Chambliss declined to be interviewed for this story, but his communications director, Bronwyn Lance-Chester, said the golf outings were to raise money for his Republican Majority Fund.

“Leadership PACs are appropriate vehicles through which members support deserving candidates in their campaigns,” Lance-Chester wrote in an e-mail. “Different leadership PACs have different ways of raising funds. Every fundraising event Sen. Chambliss has held has been appropriately conducted, all expenses have been closely scrutinized and all reporting has been accurate.”

It is hard to determine whether some of the golf outings generated any significant donations. For instance, the leadership PAC made four payments totaling $10,372 to three luxury West Coast golf courses—Pebble Beach Resorts, the Inn at Spanish Bay and Pasatiempo Golf Club.

Lance-Chester said the payments were for a single fundraising event held on Feb. 20, 2008. But no contributions were made to the leadership PAC that day. During the two weeks straddling the date of the event, $15,000 came in. That’s about average for a PAC that collected almost $700,000 during the election cycle, but low for a period with a major fund-raising event.

Lance-Chester declined to disclose who participated or made contributions in connection with any of the golf events.

“There is not a direct correlation between contributions and specific events,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Contributors can make a contribution at any time of the year, either prior to events starting in January or months afterward and still attend events…Some contributors give that amount and don’t go to any events. Some go to every event. Some go to two or three.”

Lance-Chester did not explain how or why Chambliss hosted events at three different California golf resorts on the same day. Nor did she explain why he made two deposits for the event, one to Pebble Beach Resorts 10 months before the event and another to Pasatiempo Golf Resort two weeks after the event. She also declined to elaborate on the $7,087 paid to the Belle Haven Golf Shop in Alexandria, Va., on Jan. 24, 2007. The PAC’s report to the FEC said only that it was for “PAC EVENT/GOLF SUPPLIES.”

“All disbursements from the RMF account are reviewed and approved, and are made solely for RMF-related purposes,” Lance-Chester said in another e-mail.

Fred Wertheimer, who has pushed to reduce the role of money in politics for more than three decades, said Chambliss could be running afoul of tax laws. “If this comes down to using campaign money for personal use, then he is required to pay taxes on it,” said Wertheimer, who now heads the campaign reform group Democracy 21. “If there’s a conversion and if he isn’t paying taxes, he’s also potentially violating the tax laws.”

Chambliss’ love of golf is so legendary in D.C. 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 fundraiser 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.”

Defense lobbyist James Ervin, one of Chambliss’s longtime friends and contributors, defended the senator’s golf outings. Ervin’s wife, Teresa, is Chambliss’s deputy chief of staff.

“I think that it’s more than appropriate for Sen. Chambliss to do whatever he wants with the leadership PAC money,” Ervin said. “Certainly, I think golf is completely acceptable.”

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Pebble Beach is on the Monterey Peninsula, not at Point Conception!

Reedr Webb
Sep 29, 2009

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