House ethics panel due to weigh in on Rob Andrews' use of campaign funds

U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D., N.J.) said, "These accusations are totally and categorically false."
U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D., N.J.) said, "These accusations are totally and categorically false." (MEL EVANS / Associated Press)
Posted: August 30, 2012

WASHINGTON - Set in Edinburgh's prime shopping district, and with views of the Scottish capital's iconic castle, the five-star Balmoral hotel boasts online of "contemporary luxury" in "188 opulent suites and stylish rooms." A three-night stay could cost a family of four as much as $7,725.

That was the bill for Rob Andrews and his family, who went last year to attend a campaign donor's wedding. The question for a House ethics panel is whether the veteran South Jersey Democratic congressman broke the rules by having his campaign fund pick up the tab.

The answer may come by the end of this week. The House Ethics Committee is due to release a statement on allegations that Andrews misused campaign funds by spending tens of thousands of dollars on expenses that benefited himself and his family.

But the announcement may not offer much of a resolution for Andrews, who says he did nothing improper, or his critics. The panel could sanction him, dismiss the complaints against him, or, as it often does, simply announce that it is subjecting the matter to further investigation.

"My guess is they'll prolong the investigation," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a self-styled watchdog group that is one of Andrews' prime critics. "It's never this quick and they don't do anything right before an election."

Andrews has repeatedly said he followed the rules; he also repaid his campaign for the Scottish trip once it was revealed in news reports. Other expenses he billed to the campaign have also been questioned.

Federal law says campaign funds "shall not be converted by any person to personal use," but interpretations of what constitutes a legitimate expense have varied, and enforcement has been infrequent.

The Office of Congressional Ethics referred Andrews' case to the House committee on April 2, a move that strongly suggests the office believed there was some violation.

The final ruling, though, and any penalties are left up to the committee of five House Republicans and five Democrats, which has rarely applied tough sanctions to fellow members of Congress and often seeks additional time to investigate. Under time lines set by law, the committee is required to make a statement on Andrews by Friday - but not necessarily offer a conclusion.

Even extending the review, though, instead of dismissing it could leave a cloud over Andrews, whose stature has been rising in Washington.

Sloan, whose organization promises to "change business as usual in Washington" with legal filings and aggressive promotion in the media, believes Andrews will eventually face some sanction, even if it doesn't arrive this week.

"Normally they're quite lenient on their own members, but they do have pretty strict rules about the personal use of campaign funds," she said. Her group filed a separate complaint against Andrews with the Federal Election Commission.

Andrews, 55, said this week that he had always "followed every rule and standard."

"These accusations are totally and categorically false," he said in a statement issued Monday. "None of these accusations involve the use of taxpayer or government money. Our campaign's public disclosures show that every dollar of our campaign funds was properly spent and fully disclosed."

His spending includes $12,000 for fund-raising trips to California that coincided with his daughter's music recording sessions there, and $13,540 for the wedding in Scotland, including $463 for a gift and the bill for Andrews and his family's three nights at the Balmoral. He has said he paid for the flights to Europe himself and for other parts of the trip that were not campaign-related.

There was also a party in June - a mix of celebrating his 20th year in Congress and his daughter's high school graduation - which was backed by $10,000 in campaign money, along with family funds.

Andrews not only repaid his campaign for the Scottish trip, he donated the money to a charity helping homeless veterans. He has blamed Republicans for stirring up the issue, but independent groups have also looked askance.

The Office of Congressional Ethics - an independent panel of citizens that Congress created to review ethics questions - referred Andrews' actions to the House ethics panel.

The referral is not yet public, but when the office forwards such recommendations, it typically writes that it has a "substantial reason to believe" that there has been a violation. Its report is also likely to be released by Friday, which could shed more light on Andrews' spending.

Since the start of the current Congress in January 2011, the House Ethics Committee has taken action on 12 referrals from the independent office. It has issued only one sanction in those cases. Seven times it has dismissed complaints or decided the House member had already addressed any problems. Four times it has opted for additional review.

If the committee chooses to investigate further, it has the option of impaneling a subcommittee with subpoena power.

The extra study can take time. The committee, for example, decided last August to continue a review of a complaint about U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D., N.Y.) - and still has not reached a conclusion.

Andrews' use of campaign funds was also questioned in 2009, when he bought clothes after an airline lost his baggage. The FEC said it was improper but did not punish him because Andrews had repaid the money by the time the agency ruled.

Andrews typically coasts to reelection in his heavily Democratic district. He has raised more than $1 million for this year's reelection campaign, compared with just $2,820 for his Republican opponent, Gregory Horton.

"Generally speaking, the Ethics Committee is not known for being particularly harsh on its members," said Lisa Gilbert, acting director of another outside watchdog group, Public Citizen's Congress Watch. "They're critiquing their peers so it's probably unsurprising that they're a little more lenient than some would expect."

Regardless of how the ethics case is resolved, Camden County Republican Chairman Tom Booth contends Andrews' spending "speaks to perhaps a bigger character flaw underneath all this."

Andrews, though, predicted that the Ethics Committee's review "will demonstrate the falsehood of these politically motivated accusations."


Contact Jonathan Tamari at jtamari@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari.

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