Over 30 years in public office, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen made a lot connections and raised a lot of money for campaigns -- more than $13 million for 15 congressional campaigns.
Now that she's retired from Congress, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether she illegally used some of those funds for personal purposes -- what could be a criminal violation of federal elections laws.
After announcing her retirement -- but before leaving office in 2019 -- Ros-Lehtinen transferred $177,000 from her campaign committee to a political action committee she controlled.
There's nothing wrong with that, as long as the money is used to support the PAC's political mission -- and not pay for someone's personal expenses.
Ros-Lehtinen's legal problems began last year, when then-Tampa-based investigative reporter Noah Pransky exposed questionable expenditures from the PAC on the Florida Politics website.
Pransky, now a reporter for NBC LX, said, "It appeared from her pubic campaign filings she was using it for vacations. She was using thousands of dollars at Disney. She was spending tens of thousands of dollars on trips to Amelia Island, to New York, at the W on South Beach, all under the guise of fundraising."
The Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based nonpartisan nonprofit that works to reduce the influence of money in politics and to support unrestricted access to voting, saw the report and filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission.
"The reason politicians may not use campaign funds for personal use is to prevent corruption," said Brendan Fischer, the CLC's director of federal reform.
Among the nearly $75,000 in questionable expenses cited in the complaint:
- Nearly $30,000 spent at the W Hotel South Beach in 2017 and 2018 on a “rental deposit” and “catering/facility rental”;
- $10,260 on rooms at the Lotte Palace New York on October 4, 2018;
- $5,892 on “parking,” “rooms,” and “meals” at the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island in May 2018;
- $3,104 for “meals” at MesaMar Seafood Table in Coral Gables on New Year’s Eve 2018; and
- $3,756 on “meals,” “park event tickets,” and “lodging” at Disney World in
Florida between November 30, 2017 and December 5, 2017.
As Pransky reported last year, a photo of Ros-Lehtinen with her family -- and Mickey Mouse -- was posted on her Twitter account during that stay.
"After the person has announced they’re no longer running for office, it becomes very difficult to identify any legitimate campaign or officeholder purpose for those expenses," Fischer said.
While FEC complaints often are resolved in civil procedures with fines, President Trump has left the commission without enough members to enforce federal election laws. And Fischer said the involvement of the Justice Department means Ros-Lehtinen could be in criminal jeopardy.
"If the Department of Justice is involved and impaneling a grand jury, they are apparently pursuing potential criminal charges and there‘s reason to suspect that the violation here was committed knowingly and willfully," Fischer said.
Not so, said Ros-Lehtinen's criminal defense attorney, Jeff Weiner, who confirmed the DOJ investigation.
"After the congresswoman decided not to run for re-election, the money in her campaign properly went to a PAC and she continued doing political events and the PAC paid for the expenses on those events," Weiner said. "There is nothing improper and certainly nothing criminal about that"
JC Planas, an elections attorney and former Republican legislator, said there could be innocent explanations for the expenditures.
"There was nothing in those expenses that jumps out as something egregious," Planas said. "Once it becomes money In the committee, the money can be spent to further her political agenda in how she formed her committee. So if there were conferences in New York or Orlando, she can use that money to attend the conferences."
But Weiner conceded some of what Ros-Lehtinen's committee did may not have been proper.
"If some minor mistakes, bookkeeping mistakes were made, they can easily be resolved and should be resolved in front of the FEC. This is not a Department of Justice criminal case," Weiner said.
That remains to be seen, as the investigation continues.