Rep. Luis Gutierrez's campaign committee spent more than $130,000 on hotels, airfare and other travel expenses to destinations like Las Vegas, New York, Puerto Rico and Mexico over the past five years.
One out of every 4 dollars raised by Rep. Bobby Rush's committee went to the congressman's wife, who collects a regular salary for managing the campaign.
And Rep. Aaron Schock's campaign spent more than $2,600 on cuff links, paid $390 to a seaplane company based in the British Virgin Islands and spent more than $1,500 on concert tickets.
Under federal election laws, the expenditures, disclosed in campaign finance filings to the Federal Election Commission, are legal as long as they served a political or campaign purpose.
But critics say they are examples of how campaign funds can boost lawmakers' lifestyles and how the line between personal and campaign spending can be blurred.
Candidates who cross the line can face legal trouble even years later. Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is serving time in prison for misusing $750,000 in campaign funds. Prosecutors said Jackson passed off personal purchases as campaign expenses by filing false and misleading disclosure reports to the FEC.
To see how Illinois' representatives have spent campaign money, the Tribune reviewed five years of campaign spending reports by the 18 representatives and two senators who represent Illinois in Congress. The public disclosure forms, which are collected and reviewed by the FEC largely on an honor system, are the only way for donors and constituents to know how their representatives are spending the millions of dollars that flow through campaign committees.
The reports revealed patterns in how the members spent campaign money.
More than a third of the delegation, mostly those who faced competitive races in one or both of the past two elections, spent heavily on media and advertising.
Meanwhile, lawmakers who faced little if any competition for re-election spent the most on travel, meals and cars, and employed spouses or relatives on their campaign staffs.
Some of those campaigns said in interviews that the spending helped their candidates promote policy efforts or perform party leadership roles.
Others, like Schock's campaign, would not discuss specific expenditures.
A rising star in the Republican Party, Schock is one of the delegation's most successful fundraisers. The 32-year-old is known for his good looks — he showed off his six-pack abs on the cover of Men's Health magazine in 2011 — and sharp style.
He is one of the delegation's heaviest spenders on travel and meals, which totaled more than $340,000 between his campaign and leadership committees.
For example, the campaign picked up the bill for three meals on a single day in September, according to the disclosure filings: $310 at the Capitol Hill Club; $334 at Fiola, an Italian restaurant near the Capitol; and $677 at Filomena Ristorante in Washington's Georgetown district.
Since 2011, the campaign spent more than $19,000 on hotel rooms and parties in the mountain resort town of Vail, Colo.
Disclosure reports state that the Vail expenditures were for event catering, lodging, travel and fundraising. But the committee has raised just $6,250 in contributions of $200 or more from Colorado residents since 2009, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Schock came under fire last year when the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington flagged a $1,136 expenditure at a luxury hotel in Greece. Schock paid his campaign back for the expense, acknowledging that the hotel bill was not a campaign expense.
Steven Shearer, Shock's chief of staff, told the Tribune at the time that the expenditure was mistakenly reported on campaign finance disclosures because a credit card receipt was "included with a stack of other legitimate campaign expenses."
Schock also spent $139,000 on lodging, airfare and meals through his leadership political action committee, a separate entity that politicians can create to collect and distribute campaign contributions. The committee also bought $10,000 worth of tickets from the Academy of Country Music over the past three years.
There is no restriction on the personal use of leadership PAC funds. At least eight others from Illinois have leadership PACs, and Schock's PAC spent by far the most on travel and entertainment.
Karen McDonald, political director for Schock's campaign, responded to inquiries about specific expenditures with a general statement about the fundraising process.
"Until a time exists when donations are no longer a part of our democratic process, Rep. Schock will continue to have a top-tier fundraising operation which follows all the rules and discloses all the information as required by the FEC," McDonald said.
McDonald declined to discuss the $1,565 "travel expense" that the campaign paid to J. Bondi Inc., a company with a Beverly Hills address and ties to singer Elton John. Shearer told The Washington Post last year that the expenditure was for concert tickets.
Gutierrez, who has spent about 15 percent of his campaign money on travel, said through a spokeswoman that his trips were part of his effort to build support for immigration reform.
The campaign spent thousands of dollars at hotels in New York, Beverly Hills, Calif., and Las Vegas, and nearly $100,000 on airfare.
Gutierrez "travels nationwide for the cause of immigration to attend town halls, community meetings and rallies, many of which are with other members of Congress in their districts," the campaign said in a statement provided by Gutierrez spokeswoman Susan Collins.
He also traveled frequently to Puerto Rico, where he has owned and sold property in recent years. The campaign spent more than $9,000 in the island territory since 2009.
Travel to Puerto Rico "included fundraisers for the campaign, visits with government officials, including for the governor's inauguration, and opportunities to work on issues of key concern to the lawmaker and his constituents (issues such as Vieques, civil rights and immigration)," the campaign statement said.
Meals and miscellaneous
Across the delegation, campaign checkbooks also came out for miscellaneous expenses like luggage, flower delivery, gifts and souvenirs.
In addition to the cuff links, Schock's campaign spent $407 at a Lombard studio that offers ultrasounds for expectant mothers and $452 at a Peoria maternity boutique, all of which were identified on the disclosure forms as gift expenses. The campaign buys flowers monthly from a Peoria florist and has spent $3,500 on flags.
Rush's campaign spent $652 on luggage in August, around the same time that he took a privately sponsored trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Rep. Peter Roskam's campaign disclosed a $500 in-kind contribution of cigars from a lobbyist who has worked for the cigar industry, according to the disclosure reports.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger's campaign bought $2,125 worth of coins from a silver coin-maker in Clinton, Ill. Sen. Mark Kirk's campaign spent $1,133 on souvenirs at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield.
The delegation spent about $500,000 combined on meals over the past five years, but two members — Roskam and Rep. John Shimkus — accounted for more than half of that spending. Each spent about $130,000.
The two spent heavily at the Capitol Hill Club, a private Republican club and popular event venue down the street from House office buildings in Washington.
Mary Ellen Maxwell, Shimkus' campaign treasurer, said she wasn't surprised that the committee led the delegation in food and drink spending. Shimkus is a regular at the Capitol Hill Club, she said, because it's a convenient location where he can legally conduct campaign business. Lawmakers are not allowed to handle campaign business in their official offices.
"We are extremely conservative about not doing anything (campaign-related) in our office," Maxwell said. "We always err on the side of going across the street."
Also, Shimkus, who has a leadership role in the National Republican Congressional Committee, often reserves a private room at the club when recruiting candidates or handling other sensitive business, Maxwell said.
Family on staff
For some members, the campaign is a source of household income.
Rush, Gutierrez and Rep. Mike Quigley have paid spouses for campaign work ranging from management to consulting, bookkeeping and other duties. Kirk's mother is employed on his campaign, and Schock's campaign employs his sister.
Carolyn Rush is by far the best-paid spouse of the delegation, having collected more than $300,000 over the past five years from her husband's campaign.
Rush is on a leave of absence from the House because his wife is ill. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Gutierrez's campaign has paid his wife, Soraida, more than $176,000 over the past five years, increasing her pay from about $3,000 per month in 2011 to $4,500 per month starting in 2012.
Gutierrez's campaign said in a statement that Soraida Gutierrez's role with the campaign had grown over the years.
"The campaign benefits greatly from employing Soraida, a smart and capable woman and former investment banker," the statement said.
The campaign also pays $300 every three months to rent a parking space from one of the congressman's relatives. The space is for the campaign car — a Ford hybrid with a monthly payment of $400, which replaced the campaign's $660-a-month BMW payment earlier this year.
Quigley's wife, Barbara, worked on her husband's campaign from 2009 until January, collecting more than $73,000 under the name of her tourism company, The CVB Source.
The congressman said in an interview that the arrangement had always been temporary while the campaign was operating out of the couple's home.
"She did almost all my political stuff during that period because we didn't have an office," Quigley said. "She probably got paid a fraction of what she usually does for her normal work."
Mindful that the arrangement might raise eyebrows, Quigley said he made sure that his wife accounted for every hour that she billed the campaign. She still volunteers her time to keep the campaign's books, he said.
The FEC gave the go-ahead for campaigns to hire spouses in 2001, when Jackson requested a ruling on whether he could hire his wife, Sandi, to work on his campaign. The FEC said it is legal for campaigns to hire spouses as long as they are qualified and paid no more than the market rate.
Jackson's campaign went on to pay his wife's firm more than $450,000 over the years.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist with the Washington-based watchdog group Public Citizen, said he thinks the FEC should reverse that decision.
"This is a serious problem because it is a direct personal enrichment," Holman said. "If I could hire my spouse on my campaign budget, that means that money is going into my pockets because we're one family. So it's like hiring myself to run my campaign."
Campaign finance experts and government watchdog groups have long complained that the rules governing how campaign funds can be spent are too broad, and that enforcement of those rules is too lax.
"You can take anyone out to dinner and then you could just discuss at dinner that you have a campaign coming up, that would be enough" to justify the expenditure, said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "Who's going to question you? The FEC is certainly not going to. … As long as your reports are pretty, you get away with whatever you're doing."
In fact, the improper reports filed by Jackson weren't noticed for years, until the FBI — not the FEC — launched an investigation.
Critics of the current campaign finance regime say broad rules and weak enforcement have contributed to a culture in Washington where raising and spending campaign money take priority over serving constituents.
"If I were in charge of the FEC, I would start taking a close look at what those members did while they were traveling on their campaign budgets," Holman said. "Was it really just a fundraiser and they went back home? Or was it more like a vacation and they did a fundraiser?"
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