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Baseball tickets, ski trips: How Michigan lawmakers use little-known PACs

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph: $50,000 on Chicago hotels, food and events.

Washington — Longtime Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, a baseball fanatic, spent over $50,000 on Chicago hotels, food and events over the last two years — all to help him raise money, according to his campaign. 

The total includes more than $4,600 —for Cubs tickets, $20,000 at the five-star Peninsula Hotel, $3,200 for caps and T-shirts, and $6,200 at Gibson's Steakhouse.

The tab was picked up by the political committee that Upton, a St. Joseph Republican, operates apart from his campaign account. It is funded by several of the same deep-pocketed interest groups that support his re-election campaigns. 

Upton, who is serving his 17th term, isn't alone. The vast majority of Congress  — including at least 10 of Michigan's 14 House members and both senators — has created political action committees known as leadership PACs, which have higher contribution limits and fewer spending restrictions than their authorized campaign accounts. 

Leadership PACs are ostensibly intended for lawmakers to help build support for efforts to win leadership posts in Congress. Defenders say they are useful for helping colleagues, political parties or issues they care about at election time.

Critics contend they’ve become an unregulated avenue for members to legally evade limits on campaign contributions, essentially serving as "slush funds" to spend on fancy meals, vacation destinations and sporting events that can't be charged to campaign accounts. 

Through her leadership PAC, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, spent over $30,000 at Crystal Mountain Resort in northwestern Michigan for an annual event the last two years, and over $3,000 for fundraisers at the posh Charlie Palmer Steak, which is a few blocks from her office on Capitol Hill.

Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, reported nearly $12,000 for a trip to swanky Vail, Colorado, including rooms at the Four Seasons hotel, ski lessons and snowmobile rentals, according disclosures for his leadership PAC. 

Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden: $12,900 for room and facilities at South Carolina fundraiser.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, billed over $11,000 for Detroit Tigers tickets as part of fundraisers for his Motor City PAC. 

And Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, last year used his leadership PAC to pay for a fundraising event in South Carolina, including nearly $12,900 spent at Charleston Place Hotel for event rooms and facilities. 

Expenses help other politicians

Campaign aides say the spending isn't for personal use, defending the expenses as going toward fundraising activities to benefit other politicians running for office.

Upton spokesman Josh Paciorek said the congressman's PAC expenses for tickets and events in Chicago "were for fundraisers the PAC held in order to raise money to help elect candidates around the country who supported common-sense policies and issues that benefit all Americans." 

Peters' campaign manager Dan Farough said the senator "raises resources for his leadership PAC to support candidates running for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives."

And Jamie Roe, a campaign consultant for Mitchell, said the "progressive" left "has a long line of wealthy liberals in places like Hollywood, San Francisco, New York, Boston and D.C. sending countless millions in states like Michigan to buy elections.

"Paul Mitchell is fighting back using his leadership PAC, which is fully and transparently reported within the guidelines of the FEC, to raise the funds to support candidates who share his beliefs in limited government, less regulation, a strong America and secure borders." 

But leadership PACs on average used less than half — 45 percent — of their spending for contributions to other federal candidates or political committees during the last three election cycles. 

That figure is based on data from 2013 through early 2018 analyzed by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center and Issue One, an advocacy group, whose research suggests that officeholders are raising money for leadership PACs "to perpetuate a never-ending fundraising cycle." 

Ten Michigan leadership PACs had at least $25,000 worth of expenditures for the 2017-18 election and, of those, eight directed more than half of their spending on political contributions to other candidate or party committees, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing: More than $30,000 at Crystal Mountain Resort.

Upton and Moolenaar fell below the 50-percent mark. Upton's TRUST PAC spent $407,877 last cycle, of which 42 percent, or about $169,000, was used for political donations. The rest went for fundraising activities and administrative costs. 

"The PAC's expenses are necessary operating costs for fundraisers and other events," Paciorek said. 

Moolenaar's Together United for Liberty & Prosperity (TULIP) PAC spent $48,114 during the 2018 campaign cycle, of which 47 percent, or $22,200 went for political donations. His campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

'Troubling' contribution trend

"One of the things you hear from a lot of folks is that 'it takes money to raise money,' so many of these fancy steak dinners or sporting events are designed as fundraisers to help them bring in even more cash," said Michael Beckel, manager of research, investigations and policy analysis for Issue One.

"But certainly the trend of a minority of leadership PAC contributions being doled out as campaign contributions to other candidates and political groups is troubling."  

The money donated to these and other leadership PACs often comes from the companies, unions, tribes and other groups whose interests align with the panels the lawmakers sit on and which also contribute to their re-election campaigns. 

"Most constituents have never heard of a leadership PAC, and certainly most ordinary political donors aren’t donating to a leadership PAC, but the special interests know that these things exist and can be used as way to gain access and influence with lawmakers," Beckel said.

In the case of Upton, former chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee and now the top Republican on the Subcommittee on Energy, common donors to his campaign and leadership PAC include DTE Energy, CMS Energy and Koch Industries. 

Common donors to Peters' campaign and leadership PAC include Goldman Sachs, Quicken Loans and defense contractor General Dynamics. Peters sits on the Senate Armed Services, Homeland Security and Commerce committees. 

Common donors for Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee and a senior member of the Finance Committee, include DowDuPont, Blue Cross Blue Shield and JP Morgan Chase.  

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township: More than $11,000 for Detroit Tigers tickets.

Leadership PACs are set up purportedly to help officeholders gain more influential posts in Congress such as committee chairmanships that traditionally go to senior lawmakers with the most experience.

Since seven Michigan senior lawmakers with chairmanship experience have retired since 2014, more junior members of the delegation are seeking to climb the leadership ladder. 

'End run' around FEC limits

Leadership PACs originated in 1978 when the Federal Election Committee approved them as a vehicle for members of Congress to raise money to help get other people elected.

"The initial purpose was not all that troubling or not nearly as troubling as the way these things have evolved as slush funds," said Paul Seamus Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation for the good-government group Common Cause.

"But the way they came into existence I think was illegitimate, with no basis in the campaign finance statute, and they have evolved into such vehicles of abuse by lawmakers that I’m not willing to say anything nice about them."

Leadership PACs amount to an "end run" around campaign contribution limits, which for this cycle are $2,800 per election, Ryan said. 

But leadership PACs are subject to a higher, $5,000 limit per calendar year, allowing donors who already gave the maximum to a politician's campaign account to give greater amounts to the lawmaker's leadership PAC — up to $30,000 during a senator's six-year term, for example.  

Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland: Nearly $12,000 on a trip to Vail, Colorado.

Other Michigan lawmakers are using their PACs to contribute to their own campaigns. 

Over the last six months, former Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Detroit, used $10,000 from his leadership PAC toward his $21,000 in campaign debt. Conyers, 90, resigned from Congress in 2017 amid allegations he sexually harassed aides.

"It is not the point of leadership PACs, but it is allowed and subject to a relatively low limit. Of all the things done with leadership PACs, that’s one of the most harmless uses," Ryan said. "But it doesn’t make much sense."

Issue One, the Campaign Legal Center and several former members of Congress have petitioned the FEC to extend the restrictions on personal use of campaign funds to apply to leadership PACs. That petition remains pending before the FEC.  

A bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House in January by Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-New York, also seeks to rein in abuse of leadership PACs. The legislation, which has three co-sponsors, has not moved out of the House Administration Committee.