When I read that Republican National Committee staffers had expensed nearly $2000 worth of "meals" at bondage-themed Hollywood nightclub specializing in simulated lesbian sex, I knew it couldn't be an isolated incident. No one would be bold enough to expense that unless they were sure they could get away with anything--and when people think that, they usually try. Sure enough, campaign finance records showed that RNC staffers were running up very questionable expenses--like thousands of dollars worth of "office supplies" and "meals" from trendy boutiques; and hundreds of dollars worth of "office supplies" from wineries in New England and liquor stores in D.C.. You can read the whole RNC booze and threads story at AlterNet.
For this story, I interviewed campaign finance experts and an FEC spokeswoman. I was surprised to learn how few legal consequences there are for political organizations that misstate their expenses in FEC reports. Political parties have almost unlimited discretion as to how they spend their money and how they describe those expenditures to the FEC.
If the RNC wants to squander its donors' money, the government shouldn't necessarily interfere.
That said, RNC donors can't determine if their money is being spent wisely unless parties are required to report their spending accurately. A potential donor scanning an FEC report might not realize how absurd it is to think anyone spent hundreds of dollars on "meals" at the Henri Bendel boutique on 5th Avenue. If I hadn't Googled the name, I would have assumed it was a swanky restaurant and therefore a legitimate campaign expense.
The RNC didn't return my calls for comment, so I don't know if they had some legitimate campaign purpose for overpriced costume jewelry. But if they did, why hide behind a false descriptor like "meals"? Wardrobe can be a legitimate political expense, provided its reserved for public appearances, and the recipient doesn't just pocket the clothes like Sarah Palin tried to do with her >$150,000 RNC wardrobe.
It's one thing to soft-pedal your booze runs as office supplies. Provided you're using that booze for party functions, then you're just slapping a sanitized label on a legitimate expense. Even the infamous trip to the strip club was legitimate from a campaign finance point of view, despite being a PR nightmare. The staffers were apparently courting donors: These hard-driving captains of industry are not putting down cash on some vague promise of overturning Roe. Apparently, rich Republicans won't cough up the big bucks until they actually see women in bondage.
But repeated instances of writing off hundreds of dollars worth of "meals" from places that don't even sell food makes me wonder if some of these incidents are attempts to conceal something more sinister, like appropriating party money for personal use.
Aside from the creative accounting, the FEC reports painted a picture of over-the-top excess. Records show that RNC staffers constantly feasting on steaks and sushi at the nation's finest restaurants and staying in the swankiest hotels. Those expenses aren't necessarily illegitimate from a campaign finance perspective. The RNC's job is to raise money from wealthy donors and they expect to be treated like royalty. FEC reports will tell you more about a party's priorities than a thousand op/eds.
Still, the average Republican donor doesn't like the idea of Chairman Michael Steele living like a latter day Sun King at the party's expense. There's no direct evidence that Steele partook in, or authorized, any of the questionable expenses that I uncovered. However, as the Chairman, he's ultimately responsible for the the conduct of his underlings.