Rep. Gene Green’s campaign spending raises questions about personal use
Though retiring Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) will soon stop spending campaign funds entirely, he has a history of using such funds to pay for lavish and seemingly personal expenses for himself and his family. According to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, the congressman has used campaign funds to pay for international travel, a wedding gift, and family dinners. Far from unique, Green’s spending habits fit into a larger pattern of members of Congress using campaign funds for what appears to be personal use.
In 2016, the Gene Green Congressional Campaign paid $1,493.86 to Air Canada for “airfare to former CoS wedding” for the congressman and his wife, Helen Green, who appears to also be his campaign treasurer. The trip was likely for the wedding of Moses Mercado, Green’s chief of staff from 1993 to 1997, in Quebec, Canada. Mercado is a lobbyist at Ogilvy Government Relations. The campaign also spent $270.48 at Macy’s on a wedding gift for the bride and groom.
Green’s questionable spending mirrors activity that has prompted investigations into other members of Congress, including notable examples like former Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA). Like Green, both Andrews and Hunter used campaign funds to cover seemingly personal expenses such as family travel and meals. Unlike Green, however, their spending habits received significant attention, including from congressional ethics watchdogs.
The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) investigated both Reps. Andrews and Hunter, finding “substantial reason to believe” that both men improperly spent campaign funds on personal expenses and so referred the inquiries to the House Ethics Committee. Rep. Andrews resigned from office before the House Ethics Committee could complete its review while the committee has twice deferred its Hunter inquiry to facilitate a Justice Department investigation into his use of campaign funds.
In its review of Rep. Andrews, OCE highlighted a trip similar to the one Green took with his wife to his former chief of staff’s wedding. In 2011, Andrews took his family to Scotland for the wedding of a political consultant with whom Andrews had a prior personal and “informal” advisor relationship. In addition to using his leadership PAC to pay for the airfare to the wedding, Andrews’ campaign paid for a wedding gift for the couple from Bloomingdales. The OCE report on Andrews cited House Ethics Manual guidance stating that campaign funds may not pay for the airfare of trips whose “primary purpose . . . is personal,” even if the trip features a political component such as a fundraising dinner. Ultimately, OCE concluded that Andrews improperly used campaign and leadership PAC funds to pay for those and other expenses on the trip.
Rep. Hunter similarly spent campaign funds on travel expenses. Though OCE’s full report on Hunter has not yet been made public, an OCE complaint filed by CREW details how Hunter used campaign funds to pay for several expenses on a trip to Italy in November 2015, including “travel tickets” in a Rome train station, train tickets in Naples, and “travel” expenses at a hotel in Florence.
Rep. Green’s spending has followed a similar pattern as his former and soon-to-be former colleagues. In addition to travel expenses, the Green campaign has also paid for meals for the congressman and his family that may run afoul of OCE guidelines. The Green family had two dinners at restaurants around the January 3, 2017 House swearing-in ceremony. The Green campaign spent $1,176.26 at Joe’s Stone Crab and $480.10 at Trattoria Alberto, describing each in FEC reports as a “swearing-in family dinner.” Additionally, the Green campaign spent $634 in 2015 at Portofino Ristorante, describing the expense only as a “family dinner.”
Again, parallels to Reps. Andrews and Hunter’s highly scrutinized use of campaign funds to purchase meals are clear. OCE found that Andrews improperly used “petty cash” from his campaign to purchase family meals and improperly used other campaign funds to pay for additional meals. Though the OCE report noted that Andrews’ wife, like Green’s, may have worked for the campaign, the expenses still represented personal use. In reaching those conclusions, OCE referred to House Ethics Manual guidance that spending campaign funds on family meals is inherently suspect and may only be permissible“if the other attendees actively work in the Member’s campaign, and if the meal is merely incident to a meeting having a clear, specific agenda of campaign business.”
With regard to Rep. Hunter, CREW has previously reported that his campaign paid for eighteen charges to Ki’s Restaurant in Cardiff, California on days when Hunter was likely in Washington. Ki’s Restaurant provides school lunch delivery to the school Hunter’s children attended at the time, and all of the payments to the restaurant occurred during the school year.
While Rep. Gene Green’s use of campaign funds to pay for seemingly personal expenses has so far received only limited public scrutiny, it echoes that of Andrews and Hunter who OCE found “substantial reason to believe” each improperly spent campaign money. With Green leaving office at the end of the term, time is running out for Green to account for his questionable use of campaign funds. More importantly, the Congressional ethics committees should work to prevent these kinds of abuses going forward.