Andrews criticized for campaign spending

U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.)
U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.)
Posted: November 22, 2011

If invited to an overseas wedding, many guests might wish that someone else would pick up the tab.

For U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.), that wish came true.

Andrews used $9,000 of campaign money in June to attend a wedding in Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife and two daughters. He spent $7,725 for the hotel alone: two rooms for three nights at the five-star Balmoral Hotel. He also used $463 in campaign funds to buy a wedding gift (china) and about $1,000 more for miscellaneous trip expenses, according to campaign finance reports.

Andrews says his attendance at the wedding was political, not personal.

The bridegroom was a donor and volunteer campaign adviser, and the 11-term congressman said Monday that he had no reservations about spending money to keep his fund-raising network flourishing.

"We have used donor maintenance to, frankly, sow the seeds to raise more money from people in the future," he said in an interview at a senior housing complex in Bellmawr. "I don't have the kind of organization where I can throw a dinner and raise $300,000 in one dinner. We work very hard to build good relationships and maintain good relationships so, if the need arises, if we get attacked by an independent organization . . . we can respond quickly."

"We do believe in saying thank-you to our donors," he added.

Ethics experts and congressional watchdog groups said Andrews may have violated House ethics rules that prohibit members of Congress from using campaign funds for personal gain.

"At the very least, they strike me as inappropriate, reflecting poor judgment and raising serious ethical issues," said Thomas E. Mann, W. Averell Harriman chair and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said she thinks Andrews broke the law.

Her organization plans to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, asking the agency to examine Andrews' trip, as well as a party at his Haddon Heights home to celebrate his 20 years in Congress and his daughter Jacquelyn's high school graduation. He used $10,000 in campaign funds for the June event, according to financial disclosures reported over the weekend in the Newark Star-Ledger.

"Candidates are prohibited from using campaign funds for personal use," she said. "It's pretty audacious to argue that you should be able to use your campaign funds for your family trip to Scotland and your daughter's graduation party."

"I just don't think what Rep. Andrews did passes the smell test," she added.

Stanley M. Brand, who served as general counsel to the House from 1976 to 1983, said campaign-finance rules offer a fair amount of discretion.

"There are certain personal expenses that have been deemed by the FEC to be too far removed from a campaign - like your mortgage, your divorce, things that you accrue purely in your personal life," said Brand, a prominent Washington lawyer and founder of Brand Law Group. "This one probably is getting close to the line, but it might not be over the line. If you think it's in your political interest to travel somewhere, I don't know that the FEC would second-guess that."

Brand said he had advised Andrews on legal issues, but not on this matter.

Andrews said that while personal and political events sometimes dovetailed, he kept them financially separate, keeping the arrangement legal.

The Scottish trip was part of a European vacation, he said, for which he paid for the family's airfare and the rest of the trip, using campaign funds only for the time in Edinburgh during the wedding.

As for the party, the invitation lists were kept separate so the Andrews family could pay for expenses relating to the graduation, said Fran Tagmire, Andrews' chief of staff.

Most of the 300 attendees were political guests, and Andrews paid $6,000 of his own money to cover costs associated with his daughter's guests, Tagmire said.

Andrews defended the Scotland trip and the party, among other expenses, as investments.

"These are expenses that are in furtherance of building a winning political organization, and they're certainly well within the law," Andrews said. "I think money that you spend that raises money down the line is an investment in your fund-raising efforts."

This isn't the first time CREW has called for an investigation into Andrews' spending. In 2009, it called on the FEC to investigate Andrews when he spent nearly $1,000 in campaign funds to buy clothes after an airline lost his luggage. The FEC agreed that Andrews misused campaign funds, and Andrews reimbursed his campaign.

With Congress' approval rating at an all-time low of 9 percent, Andrews might want to consider reimbursing his campaign for some of the expenses rather than facing further scrutiny heading into an election year, said Craig Holman, an ethics expert and lobbyist with the nonpartisan group Public Citizen.

"The faster he does it the better, before the FEC feels the need to investigate," he said, adding that the House Ethics Committee also could choose to look into the matter. "This falls under negligent use of campaign funds for personal profit. He got part of a reimbursement of a vacation out of this."


Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at jfarrell@phillynews.com, 856-779-3237, or @joellefarrell on Twitter.

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