INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman on Thursday defended his decision to have his Senate campaign pay more than $2,000 for a six-day trip to California last summer that his wife described on social media as a family vacation.
Federal Election Commission guidelines forbid using campaign funds for personal expenses.
The congressman, who is running for U.S. Senate in the May 3 primary election, said in a written statement Thursday that he has “always been fully transparent with Hoosiers and it is irresponsible to imply that I have not always done my best to be in compliance with all FEC rules and regulations.”
A Facebook page belonging to Stutzman’s wife touted the family’s visit to the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, California, with photos showing the two children by the conservative icon’s grave and the couple in front of a “humble” wooden table where Reagan signed a massive tax cut.
Stutzman’s campaign insists political business was conducted on the trip, and that his family participated in it. But his spokesman said late Wednesday that the congressman reimbursed the campaign fund last week for the family’s portion of the trip after The Associated Press began inquiring about it.
“All personal family time on the trip was paid for out of my own pocket,” Stutzman said in Thursday’s statement.
The California visit represents just a small part of the over $300,000 in flights, vehicle charges, meals and hotel stays Stutzman’s campaign fund has spent since the tea party-backed Republican went to Washington in 2010 on a pledge to oppose special interests, an AP review found. That’s roughly three times more than Rep. Todd Young, his GOP rival for an open U.S. Senate seat in the May 3 primary who joined the House about the same time.
Over the course of a week, The Associated Press repeatedly asked the campaign to explain the California trip and Stutzman’s other spending habits, including his use of congressional funds to reimburse himself for mileage driven on a personal vehicle. The campaign never answered directly and never announced that it had reimbursed the campaign fund for the costs of the family’s trip until after the AP published a review of Stutzman’s campaign fund usage on Wednesday.
Stutzman’s campaign released an itinerary for the trip Thursday. Campaign manager Josh Kelley said a day earlier that a number of meals and meetings listed were political in nature. But the names of people Stutzman met during the trip were deleted from the itinerary and the document didn’t spell out the political purpose of the events. The itinerary only lists Stutzman’s wife and children participating in one of the events.
“We just didn’t want to put that (deleted) information on there,” Kelley said, citing “privacy concerns.”
Although a caption on one of the photos that Stutzman’s wife posted online describes the trip as a “family vacation,” documents obtained by The Associated Press show his Senate campaign paid more than $2,000 for the four airline tickets to Los Angeles and covered expenses for a vehicle rental and Hilton hotel room recorded during the August trip.
Kelley said the Hilton expense was incurred in Indianapolis the night before the California trip.
“It was a campaign trip,” said Kelley.
The Facebook pictures from the Reagan library were removed from public view several days after the AP first asked about the trip.
Michael Toner, who was chairman of the FEC under President George W. Bush, said family vacations can’t be charged to a campaign account and that the candidate must pay for all personal expenses, even if the trip includes political activities. If the candidate later refunds the campaign, “it doesn’t completely resolve the situation because campaign funds were still used for a personal expense at the outset,” Toner said.
Previously, during one eight-month period in 2015, Stutzman used his campaign fund and congressional allowance to reimburse himself $13,100 for mileage driven on a personal vehicle — the equivalent of about 40 roundtrips from his hometown of Howe in northern Indiana to the state’s southern border touching Louisville, Kentucky. The expenses covered a period when Stutzman was casting votes in Congress and his campaign was billing for dozens of airline tickets.
Among the AP questions Stutzman’s campaign declined to respond to was whether the mileage was largely for in-state trips or travel to and from Washington. Members of Congress are allowed to use their office allowance to pay for travel back to their districts, but the roughly nine-hour drive from Capitol Hill to Howe is about 570 miles, or $308 in one-way mileage at the congressional rate. Traveling by plane is much faster and often a fraction of the cost.
The records didn’t indicate what vehicle or vehicles racked up the mileage, including who owned them. In late 2012, Stutzman’s campaign bought a vehicle with a $10,000 down payment. By the time it was paid off in June 2015, the running tab surpassed $60,000 for automobile-related expenses, including car payments, insurance, registration and repairs.
Since 2010, Stutzman has billed his campaign for $129,872 in airfare and hotels — including one charge to the Ritz Carlton — compared to $26,378 for Young. Stutzman also paid out more than $50,000 for food and drink, including over $24,000 to the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican invite-only establishment that boasts the “nation’s most influential people” as its members.
Stutzman presents himself as a small-town farmer with a cure for the “Potomac fever” he says is gripping a national political establishment that has refused to rein in government spending at taxpayers’ expense.