Lawmakers PAC in for retirement

Envelope with cash addressed to Mr. Senator

TEXT OF STORY

Stacey Vanek-Smith: Today, we continue our special report, PAC Men, a look at lawmakers and their fund-raising. It's no surprise lawmakers have campaign funds to help them get re-elected. But it turns out they also have a second pool of donations that they use pretty much however they want, even after they retire. Marketplace's Steve Henn has more.


Steve Henn: For ambitious legislators, there's an essential tool for accumulating power -Leadership Political Action Committees. They allow members of congress to raise cash and donate it to their political allies' campaigns. But when a politician retires, these accounts can also become a personal piggy bank.

Fred Wertheimer runs Democracy 21, a campaign Finance Reform Group:

Fred Wertheimer:: If I'm a member of congress and I have a million-dollar leadership PAC, and I leave Congress, I can legally take that million dollars, pay income tax on it, and do whatever I want with it.

Take Michael Oxley, the former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Oxley retired from Congress a little over a year ago with more than $135,000 in his PAC account, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Those reports show in the year after he retired, Oxley's PAC spent more than half its cash, $74,000, on perks for himself and friends including Colorado ski trips, meals in New York, and tickets to Broadway shows.

Fred Wertheimer:

Wertheimer: That's an extraordinary abuse. That oughta to be prohibited.

But it's not.

Oxley refused to talk to us. His lawyer says many of his expenses were for legitimate fund-raising parties. Problem is, these events raised little or no money. And even after his lawyer says Oxley's PAC stopped trying to raise money, FEC filings show Oxley kept using his PAC to pay for expensive trips.

And Oxley's not alone, according to Melanie Sloan. She runs the watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Melanie Sloan: As we'll see more and more members retire with greater and greater amounts of money in these leadership PACs, there are going to be real questions about whether legitimately that money should be spent on your next vacation to the Bahamas.

This year, close to 30 members of Congress who run these accounts are retiring. FEC reports show that in total their PAC accounts contain more than $2 million. How they'll spend the money remains to be seen.

Michael Toner, the former Republican chairman of the FEC, is now a lawyer in private practice who advises former lawmakers that still operate PACs.

Michael Toner: Well, a lot of former members wish to continue operating leadership PACs to support political activities all over the country. The law allows them to do that and they are often very successful doing that.

But for a generation some retiring politicians from both parties have treated these PAC accounts as another perk of office.

In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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