Most members of the New York City Congressional delegation don't face competitive elections, but that hasn't stopped them from raising and spending millions on their campaigns, as lawmakers often turn to their donors and, in some cases, taxpayers to pay for meals and travel. Washington Bureau Reporter Michael Scotto filed the following report.
Rep. Gregory Meeks likes to cruise around his Queens district in style. The 10-term Congressman drives a nearly $1,000-a-month Lexus with blacked-out windows, courtesy of you, the taxpayer.
The arrangement is perfectly legal. House members are allowed to use their office budgets to lease cars, but, as Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation says, "You're only supposed to use them for official business, and there's no system in place to kind of audit that."
The car is just one perk enjoyed by Meeks, who is the only member of the New York City Congressional delegation to use government funds to lease an automobile. In addition to his government budget, Meeks has access to his million-dollar campaign war chest. And during the last election cycle, Meeks' campaign spent $900,000, with about $148,000 going to meals and fundraising events, including more than $4,000 for an event at the 40/40 club in Manhattan, and $34,000 for concerts and games. The campaign also spent nearly $68,000 on travel expenses, including more than $1,000 at the Bridgehampton Inn last summer.
Yet in 2014, Meeks faced relatively unknown opponents. He won his primary election with 80 percent of the vote and the general with 95 percent.
Meeks' office declined to comment.
It's not just his campaign that spent money. Meeks' leadership PAC, an account used by lawmakers to raise their profiles and to donate to colleagues, foot the bill for some pricey items. The PAC donated $16,000 to fellow Democrats' campaigns, but spent nearly $18,000 on travel and events, including nearly $14,000 at the swanky ARIA Hotel in Las Vegas.
To be fair, Meeks was hardly the biggest spender. A review of the last election cycle shows that NYC congressional members spent millions of dollars, despite the fact few of them faced competitive elections.
Meeks' colleague, Joseph Crowley, who is a member of House Democratic leadership, spent nearly $2.7 million in campaign money over the last two years. $120,000 went toward travel, including nearly $30,000 toward the purchase of a campaign car, more than $9,000 at the Mondrian in SoHo and nearly $800 at the Ritz Carlton in St. Thomas.
The campaign also spent more than $420,000 on food and fundraisers, including nearly $5,000 over several visits to a restaurant near Capitol Hill, $2,000 at Dunkin Donuts and $43,000 for fundraising events at the New York City Wine and Food Festival.
Crowley faced no primary election last year and won the general election with 88 percent of the vote. His leadership PAC, meanwhile, spent nearly $300,000 on travel, food and entertainment. More than $85,000 went to the Recording Academy for concert tickets, and $27,000 to a luxury hotel in Santa Monica.
His team notes that his campaign and leadership PAC donated more than $1 million to candidates and to the Democratic party in an effort to reclaim the majority.
It's well known on Capitol Hill that money helps members amass power, but good government groups say it's difficult to track how they spend those dollars.
"At times, we've seen that they've crossed the line into what's called personal use," says Stephen Spaulding of Common Cause. "And really, the rules are wide open as to what candidates can use their money for."
Rep. Nydia Valezquez’s campaign leased at least one car during the last election cycle.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler spent $1.3 million on his campaign. He faced two no-name challengers and won his overwhelmingly Democratic district with nearly 88 percent of the vote.
One member who didn't spend much was Rep. Jose Serrano. Of the nearly $166,000 spent, less than $2,000 went to travel and about $7,500 went to food. He won re-election with 97 percent of the vote.