A New Jersey congressman has spent at least $97,000 in campaign money on at least 18 trips over the past five years to California, where his daughter has been pursuing a singing and acting career, The Associated Press found.
Campaign finance reports show U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews pulled in about $260,000 in donations from California residents and political actions committees during the period, apparently holding major fund raising events during about a half-dozen of the trips. It's impossible to tell from the records whether he met with donors on other visits.
Federal campaign finance regulations allow campaign funds to be used for certain non-fund raising travel. But campaign experts say that raising less than $3 per $1 spent on fund raising is a lower rate than normal for most candidates and raises questions about why he is making so many trips to California.
Andrews is not accused of any wrongdoing, and his campaign says that his expenditures in California were legitimate, in part because connections there have helped him raise money in other states.
A Washington watchdog group has urged federal election regulators to examine whether Andrews, who was first elected to the House in 1990, has been using campaign money for personal expenses in his California travels. It highlighted a November 2011 trip on which he spent nearly $12,000 in campaign funds, met with donors and raised at least $5,000 while he stayed at Beverly Hills Plaza hotel, hired limousine services for $1,400 and was photographed attending his daughter's recording session. The records do not say whether the campaign paid for her expenses, though Andrews, 54, says it never did so improperly.
It turns out the trip wasn't a one-time event but rather part of a regular pattern.
In the first review of Andrews' longer-term campaign spending practices, the AP examined his campaign finance reports going back 10 years and found that the Democratic congressman began regular campaign-funded trips to California starting in 2007. By that time his daughter, Josie, now 17, was spending time in California for auditions, according to her biography on the Internet Movie Database. At least four of Andrews' trips coincided with her recording sessions based on her tweets and web posts from her record label, Vendetta Entertainment.
In an emailed statement, Andrews spokesman Fran Tagmire said Andrews has properly disclosed all his campaign expenditures and used personal money for any personal expenses. Tagmire declined to be interviewed or arrange an interview with Andrews but did send a lengthy email addressing some of the questions the AP asked about his campaign expenditures.``His constituents ask him every day about jobs, education, health care and other issues that affect their lives, not the questions you are raising,'' Tagmire said.
The Andrews campaign says it was doing what political experts say Democratic candidates do, going to the Los Angeles area to raise money from deep-pocketed liberals. The campaign also says he has spent time there meeting with experts on topics from education to foreign policy, though the campaign has declined to identify those experts. Tagmire also said that California contributors have used their connections to help the campaign raise money in other states.
``The political benefits of these expenses have far outweighed the costs,'' Tagmire said, adding: ``Your numbers are wrong.''Tagmire declined to answer follow-up questions about what details from the AP analysis he believes are incorrect.
Federal campaign rules give candidates latitude in how they can spend donors' dollars, though they are barred from using the contributions on vacations and other purely personal expenses.
The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which acts as a public-interest watchdog in campaign finance policy issues, said the difference between what Andrews is spending and collecting looks odd.
``The closer you get to having a wash,'' said the center's associate counsel, Paul Ryan, ``the more it looks like a ruse and that campaign donors are really footing the bill for trips that are not principally about raising money.''
Josie Andrews has spent most of her life in ballet and theater productions in New Jersey and Philadelphia. She sang at the White House in 2005. She's recorded songs in a Hollywood studio and has been an opening act for concerts by teen-pop stars such as the Naked Brothers Band. Some of her songs were also featured in last year's Brooke Shields movie, ``The Greening of Whitney Brown.''
Her father has previously come under scrutiny for his use of campaign money.
In 2009, Andrews repaid his campaign for more than $900 for replacing clothing that was lost by an airline. The FEC had ruled that that expenditure was not permissible.
Last year, he reimbursed more than $13,000 he used to take his family to a wedding in Scotland. Even as it repaid, the campaign said there was nothing wrong and that the trip was made for a donor's wedding. The FEC has not ruled on that expense.
And in February, the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington called for the FEC to audit his November 2011 California trip. The FEC does not disclose ongoing actions.
Last week, CREW issued another report based on campaign finance reports and federal spending requests to examine how members of Congress use their jobs to benefit their families. That report criticized Andrews for donating campaign money to performance groups with which his daughter has been involved and earmarking federal appropriations for the Rutgers University School of Law in Camden, where his wife is an administrator. Tagmire has defended those actions.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW _ a group Tagmire described as ``a shadowy organization'' said the AP's newest findings look bad for Andrews. ``It's unusual for a member from New Jersey to spend so much of his time allegedly fund raising in California,'' she said. ``It suggests that he's been using his campaign funds for personal use.''
Federal Election Commission regulations allow candidates to spend money on campaigns, as well as political meetings and speeches. But they ban personal expenses, including vacations. The FEC regulation says that candidates must reimburse their campaign accounts for the personal parts of trips that include both personal and campaign components.
Tagmire said it is permissible to use donor money to pay for lodging for a candidate's minor child on a campaign-related trip but added that Josie's other expenses have been paid out of personal money. ``The Congressman's daughter's activities have been fully paid for out of personal funds and any inference by anyone, to the contrary is false,'' Tagmire said.