Report criticizes ‘slush funds’ used by Congress, including spending by Utah’s Orrin Hatch and Jason Chaffetz

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz and wife, Julie, are shown in the 2017 file photo. Chaffetz spent $1,279 at Costco for supplies and $2,881 at the Trump International Hotel in Washington by dipping into a leadership PAC he runs. Critics say such PACs are essentially slush funds for members of Congress.

Washington • Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz spent $1,279 at Costco for supplies and $2,881 at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

Then-Sen. Orrin Hatch spent more than $11,000 on gifts and memorabilia, including over $7,000 at L.L. Bean and nearly $4,500 at the U.S. Senate Gift Shop.

But those payments didn’t come from their own pockets or even from their campaign accounts. They came from their official leadership political action committees, little-known groups that allow members of Congress to fork out money for a variety of things if they can justify expenditures as intended to help others get elected.

Critics have another name for leadership PACs: slush funds.

“Should it be legal for members of Congress to operate ‘slush funds’ to subsidize lavish lifestyles — spending money on private jets, five-star resorts and fine dining at events that are often underwritten by lobbyists and special-interest donors?

“If you think the answer should be no, then we’ve got some news for you: Such outlandish expenditures from these funds — known as leadership PACs — are being treated by regulators as lawful when they shouldn’t be,” says a new report by the Campaign Legal Center and Issue One that looked at spending from the PACs.

The Federal Election Commission allowed for the creation of leadership PACs in the 1970s with the goal of allowing members of Congress to raise money to help out other politicians, and they’ve grown wildly popular. Almost all members have at least one, and they raise and spend tens of millions of dollars a year.

Less than half the money raised — about 46 percent — has gone toward contributions to candidates or political groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“Instead, as Issue One and Campaign Legal Center previously reported, members of Congress routinely use leadership PAC funds to pay for expensive meals, rounds of golf, and luxury hotel stays, often under the guise of fundraising,” write the authors Michael Beckel and Amisa Ratliff.

Chaffetz, who left Congress in June 2017 and is now a Fox News contributor, donated about 22 percent of his $102,000 leadership PAC money to candidates and political groups. In the last three months of 2018, he spent $1,766 on airfare.

The former Utah congressman, who has rebranded his group as the American Victory PAC, says the spending is justified. There’s more than just giving donations to other candidates, there’s also flying to support them at events, he said, and you need supplies to run a group.

“There are limitations on what you can use it for. I use mine purely for political purposes,” Chaffetz said. “Making myself available to help others in their races is a big part of what I'm doing with it. It requires traveling and being there and helping others.”

He disputes the report’s main point that leadership PACs are being used improperly.

"They’re not slush funds to go out and buy a wardrobe and do other silly things,” Chaffetz said. “They’ve got to be used for political purposes.”

The Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, which the former Utah senator set up and is involved with now that he’s retired, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The report says that 41 percent of the $485,000 Hatch’s leadership PAC spent in 2017 and 2018 went to candidates in the form of donations.

Beyond Hatch’s spending at the gift shop and L.L. Bean, he also spent $6,204 at Salt Lake City’s Alta Club in his last two years in the Senate.

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