CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Two of South Carolina’s most powerful politicians have spent thousands of dollars at golf resorts, ritzy hotels, and expensive restaurants, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
Spokespersons for Congressman James Clyburn and Senator Lindsey Graham call them "fundraising expenses," but some watchdog groups say they look more like "slush funds" used to maintain a life of luxury.
Congressman Clyburn and Senator Graham's leadership PACs are thriving. They are political action committees established to help elect like-minded candidates and build support for their ambitions to reach positions of power.
Some watchdog groups argue their purpose has been skewed to fuel a political system built on money.
“Even the intended purpose of leadership PACs can be questionable,” said Brendan Fischer, the federal reform director for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization leading the fight to get more oversight of Leadership PACs. “The existence of leadership PACs makes it almost a requirement that officeholders who want to get into a leadership position has to buy their way up the leadership ladder. It’s very hard to get into a leadership position in congress without giving money to other candidates, and that means you have to raise money from wealthy donors, which helps contribute to a system entirely dependent on money.”
Congressman Clyburn is the House Majority Whip, and Senator Graham is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Fischer contends leadership PACs can present opportunities for corruption.
"When an officeholder is flying around the country and rubbing shoulders with wealthy donors at exclusive luxury beach front resorts, they are in a position where they are going to be spending more time hearing from wealthy donors than from the constituents they actually represent," Fischer said.
Over the past 5 years, Clyburn's BRIDGE PAC and Graham's Fund for America's Future have together spent more than $157,000 at the luxurious Kiawah Island Golf Resort.
Most recently, on November 16, 2018, Senator Graham spent $22,083 at the resort for a PAC fundraising event.
Experts from the Campaign Legal Center say this type of spending is particularly notable when you compare it to the $14,500 that was given by Graham's PAC to other candidates and political comittees during this same time period.
The CLC argues this is an example of how leadership PACs have diverged from their original purpose, and instead, often under the guise of fundraising expenses, are increasilngly used to spend more time with wealthy donors at resorts that are beyond the means of many constituents.
Graham's team called the 2018 event at Kiawah Island the largest and most successful they've ever had with over 100 people at the dinner. The final bill included charges for golf, catering, venue rental, and villas for lodging.
FEC filings also show Graham has spent nearly $22,000 at expensive DC steakhouses since 2013. His team says this covered meals for more than a hundred people over the past six years.
Graham's PAC also paid $2,400 on hotel rooms at the Hilton in Beverly Hills, California, to campaign for other candidates and raise money.
"Senator Graham is very proud of the support he has provided to Republican candidates, party committees, and conservative groups across the country," said Scott Farmer, the executive director of Fund for America's Future PAC. "He has raised and distributed millions of dollars to help elect conservative candidates for office and fight for the conservative cause."
But, according to FEC filings, Graham's PAC only devoted 29% of its total spending over the last election cycle to these types of political contributions.
In contrast, Congressman Clyburn has given 77% of his total spending to other democrats and political committees.
To do that though, he's had to raise money.
FEC filings show he spent at least $61,000 since 2013 at the Belmond Charleston Place on Meeting Street.
His team said these expenses are related to Clyburn's annual fundraiser for his PAC.
They added that it's important to Clyburn this event is held in his home state so the receipts of the golfing, accomodations, meals and more for donors goes to the local economy.
His expenditures since 2013 also include $2,200 for "travel expenses" at Casa Del Mar, a luxury beachside hotel in California, and $746 dollars for a stay at the Pebble Beach Resort, costs attributed to Congressman Clyburn supporting other congressmen.
This kind of spending is not illegal, but the Campaign Legal Center argues it could pose a risk for abuse.
"In an ideal world, leadership roles in Congress would be awarded based on merit, based on a legislato'rs effectiveness, based on their skill and background in the area or committee they are hoping to lead," Fischer said. "But oftentimes, leadership roles are awareded based on relationships and based on money. One of the ways officeholders build relationships and curry favor with their colleagues is by spreading money around and leadership PACs are the means by which that money is spread."
These are not taxpayer dollars. This is money donated to the leadership PACs.
But for both officeholders, most of their donors are not from the state Clyburn and Graham call home.
"Their leadershp PACs are oftentimes funded by corporate pacs, special interest and wealthy donors," Fischer said.
“Congressman Clyburn is proud of his record supporting Democratic candidates and helping to grow the Democratic Party across the country through his Leadership PAC. Thanks in part to his efforts campaigning on behalf of and contributing to Democratic candidates, the Democrats won back the majority the U.S. House of Representatives in November,” said Clyburn spokeswoman Hope Derrick. “Congressman Clyburn has been a long-time advocate for campaign finance reform and believes the current system favors candidates with personal wealth and those from wealthy communities. Until that system is changed, he will continue to do his part under this current structure as the third ranking Democrat in the House to support his fellow Democratic candidates.”
Fischer argues the use of leadership PACs has become a feature of modern congressional life.
“Senator Graham is especially proud of the campaigning he did across the country last year -- at the request of the Trump White House -- to expand the Republican majority in the Senate," Farmer said. “Politics is a team sport. Increasing the number of Republican elected officials at all levels of government -- especially in the Senate -- is tremendously beneficial to South Carolina and the conservative values for which Senator Graham is fighting.”
Fischer believes it is very unlikely Congress would ban leadership PACs, but there seems to be some movement towards reform.
A bipartisan bill has been introduced by Rep. Kathleen Rice [D-WA]and Rep. Mike Gallagher [R-WI] to extend the personal use prohibition to all political committees.
“For too long, we’ve allowed outside money to play an outsized and arcane role in our politics, blurring the lines between special interest groups and the candidates they support,” said Representative Kathleen Rice in a press release posted to her website. “The Political Accountability and Transparency Act will close some of the most gaping loopholes in our campaign finance laws by increasing restrictions and reporting requirements for outside groups. This bipartisan bill will help restore integrity and trust in our nation’s political process.”
Some newer congressmembers seem to be avoiding the issue altogether by forgoing the influence of such money.
Congressman Joe Cunningham, who represents South Carolina’s first district, does not have a leadership PAC and does not plan to establish one, according to his team.