Ethics report: Huizenga's campaign-funded Disney trips 'raised concerns'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

The House Ethics Committee is continuing an investigation into Rep. Bill Huizenga after a congressional report found his campaign funded trips to Walt Disney World, making payments for meals, airfare and even a stroller.

Huizenga, R-Zeeland, his staffers and their families went on the trips, which also served as fundraising events for the campaign, according to the report from the Board of the Office of Congressional Ethics. The committee released on Thursday the report and more than 300 pages of exhibits.

Bill Huizenga

Federal regulations generally bar candidates from using campaign money for personal expenses that are unrelated to campaigning for office.

Congressional investigators questioned Huizenga, who represents West Michigan's 2nd District, about the stroller funded by the campaign for a staffer's child at Disney World in Florida, according to a transcript released with the report.

"Again, their family coming to a family-oriented PAC event, I would not have a problem having that expense because I see the benefit for all of their attendance," Huizenga said.

The report also flagged other campaign-funded trips to Mackinac Island and Park City, Utah.

"While these trips were generally described as campaign fundraisers, the high cost and the attendance of staff’s families on these trips raised concerns that campaign funds were being converted for personal use to pay for vacations for Rep. Huizenga, his staff, and their families," according to the report.

The board found "substantial reason to believe" that Huizenga's campaign committee made payments that were "not for legitimate and verifiable campaign expenditures." And the board recommended that the ethics committee continue to look into the matter.

The Ethics Committee has ongoing investigations involving two of Michigan's 14 U.S. House members. Besides Huizenga, the other involves Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, whose inquiry focuses on salary payments she received from her campaign after Election Day.

In a statement Friday, Huizenga's spokesman Brian Patrick criticized the investigation into Huizenga, specifically mentioning Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"After months of investigation, Nancy Pelosi’s foot soldiers produced a partisan report that continues the false narrative created by the Michigan Democratic Party. This matter has already been resolved and dismissed by the Federal Election Commission (FEC)," Patrick said.

The Federal Elections Commission was split 2-2 on whether Huizenga's campaign violated election law, according to a June 10, 2019, letter. OCE describes itself as an "independent, non-partisan entity."

The House Ethics Committee, unlike most other congressional committees, is evenly divided between five Democrats and five Republicans, although the chairman is a Democrat. 

Huizenga told an OCE investigator the trips aimed to establish "goodwill" among campaign donors, according to a transcript.

"...(T)he focus is on making sure that there is a benefit to the campaign, either immediate, or a longer term," he said, according to a transcript. "That longer term could be later in the cycle."

The leading members of the ethics committee released a Thursday statement that they will examine the situation to "gather additional information necessary to complete its review."

"The committee notes that the mere fact of conducting further review of a referral, and any mandatory disclosure of such further review, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee," the statement said.

The Office of Congressional Ethics' report examined trips to Disney World that occurred in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Huizenga, his chief of staff, a deputy staffer and their families went on the trips. Lobbyists and representatives of political action committees were also invited to attend. The expenses of the 2018 trip for the deputy and her family alone were $4,564, according to the report.

This message from Rep. Bill Huizenga's campaign was included in documents gathered as part of an Office of Congressional Ethics review into his use of campaign funds.

"All those interviewed regarding the Disney trip agreed that the campaign committee paid for all expenses on the trip, save personal souvenirs if those were purchased," the report said. "This included airfare, hotel, ground transportation, park tickets, meals and other daily expenses such as a stroller for the D.C. deputy’s young child."

The campaign also funded trips to Mackinac Island for the biannual Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference. Huizenga described the event as "this big giant cocktail party, fundraising, relationship building two-day extravaganza," according to the report.

"It's a sight to behold," Huizenga said, according to a transcript.

In addition, the campaign spent at least $15,703 for Huizenga, his chief of staff and their families to go on a 2018 trip to Utah for an event, according to the OCE report, which cited "credit card, hotel and ski shop records." The spending included $970 ski rentals, according to the report.

On top of the trips, the report alleged that Huizenga's campaign made "impermissible" reimbursements to congressional staffers.

The new report shows "voters deserve greater campaign finance transparency and spending disclosure rules," said Bryan Berghoef, a Holland pastor and a Democratic candidate who hopes to challenge Huizenga in 2020.

"Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, we can safely say that Congressman Bill Huizenga’s spending habits are out of touch with our West Michigan values," Berghoef said in a press release."I can’t imagine spending as lavishly as Congressman Huizenga, and neither, I suspect, can many of the hard-working families in West Michigan."