May 7, 2009 at 5:57 pm

Rep. Conyers tops in use of campaign funds for travel

Election watchdogs raise questions whether money was spent properly

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Washington -- Rep. John Conyers' campaign committee spent nearly $46,000 on travel and transportation during the first three months of 2009, a figure far higher than his colleagues among senior members of Congress.

The campaign also bought $14,000 worth of Super Bowl tickets for the veteran lawmaker and campaign donors.

Conyers' campaign says every item was a legitimate campaign expense. A Conyers campaign spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said each dollar was related to campaign requirements.

But the level of spending on travel -- nearly double the next-highest figure among more than 60 senior members of Congress -- raises questions about whether the Detroit Democrat, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is mixing campaign business and personal affairs.

"To take money I presume was given in the name of winning future elections and converting it into entertainment and these lavish items, that issue needs to be raised," said Rich Robinson, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Another Michigan congressman, Midland Republican Dave Camp, also had significantly above-average travel spending.

Conyers' disclosure of campaign fundraising and spending for the first three months of 2009 shows spending on plane tickets, hotels and limousine services in Detroit; Washington, D.C.; Tampa, Fla., and Los Angeles.

That figure is nearly double the next highest figure among a group of more than 60 lawmakers, including House leaders of both parties, committee chairmen and ranking Republicans and Michigan members of the House. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, spent about $23,000 during the same period.

Camp ranked fifth, spending about $14,000 on travel in the first quarter. Campaign spokesman Sage Eastman attributed that to the size of Camp's district -- the second-largest in the state and in the top 25 percent of all districts nationwide -- and his recent elevation to the role of top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee.

$14,000 Super Bowl trip

In addition to travel, Conyers paid about $14,000 for tickets to this year's Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa. A campaign spokesman said Conyers held a fundraiser there and paid for tickets for some donors. The payments were to television networks ESPN, CBS and Fox, two ticket brokers and the pro football players union. Face value of the tickets to the Feb. 1 game was $800 or $1,000, depending on the seat.

The expense of the trip may have been even higher. The campaign reported a debt of $8,500 to DirecTV, the NFL's satellite TV broadcaster, for "event tickets, travel, lodging," though it was unclear if the debt was related to the Super Bowl.

Conyers, first elected to Congress in 1964, is the second-longest serving member of the House, trailing only fellow Michigan Democrat John Dingell. He is widely admired by liberals as a champion of civil rights and as one of the toughest critics of the Bush administration. A founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, he's one of the most prominent African-American politicians of the past half-century.

While campaign finance experts said they were troubled by the spending there is no proof of wrongdoing in Conyers' first-quarter campaign statement filed with the Federal Election Commission; in fact, FEC rules give lawmakers wide latitude in how the spend their donors' money.

Campaigns can spend money for campaign-related trips by the candidate, his or her staff, and spouses and dependent children. Campaign money also can pay for travel related to a candidate's role as a federal officeholder; for instance, a past FEC ruling allows campaigns to pay for travel to and from Washington for a member's spouse and children.

The rules bar spending on personal travel, such as vacations, or for expenses that a candidate would incur even if not an officeholder, such as groceries and household utilities.

$13,000 on limo service

The campaign spokesman attributed the travel spending to Conyers' prominence. As a national figure, the spokesman said, Conyers travels widely around the country, holding fundraisers and developing campaign contacts.

More than $13,000 of the travel expenses went to a Baltimore limousine company. The spokesman said the payments for private car service during the inauguration came at a time when such services in the Washington, D.C., area were more expensively priced.

The Super Bowl trip raised the biggest questions with campaign finance watchdogs.

"That's something people might be inclined to see as personal use in the guise of official duties," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money and influence in government. Krumholz said the Super Bowl trip and Conyers' overall level of spending merit scrutiny from constituents, who should decide whether the spending represents unwarranted perks or legitimate use of campaign money.

The Conyers spokesman said the campaign held a fundraiser in Tampa and paid for Conyers and a group of donors to attend the game. The FEC report does not reveal which donors attended the fundraiser or received tickets, but Conyers collected $22,000 in donations in the two weeks surrounding the Feb. 1 game -- exceeding the roughly $14,000 spent on game tickets.

Conyers has faced questions in the past from the House Ethics Committee over complaints by staffers that they were directed to do campaign work or perform personal chores for Conyers, including babysitting. In December 2006, Conyers admitted to "a lack of clarity" in assigning office staffers and agreed to bar any from performing campaign work unless they were on leave from the House.

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The bottom line

Conyers campaign ended the third quarter having spent more money than it raised:
Donations: $137,005.43
Expenses: $163,151.60
Cash on hand at the end of the quarter: $61,970.71
Source: Campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission