SOMETIMES, it has been observed, the most eyebrow-raising activities of politicians are perfectly legal.
So it is with ex-members of Congress and the at-times considerable campaign war chests they retire with. According to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a watchdog group, 112 former members have kept $10.5 million in unspent campaign money for personal use since 1979.
About $6 million went to personal accounts or, in cases when ex-members had died, to beneficiaries. The other $4.5 million went for post-retirement political expenses such as office space, travel, and entertainment. In some cases members used the money for legal fees in criminal cases or congressional ethics investigations, according to the CPI report, released Wednesday.
``The American people are deeply suspicious of Congress, and there is a persistent perception out there that individual elected officials are out of touch with ordinary, everyday citizens - and worse, that they are principally interested in feathering their own nests,'' CPI chairman Charles Lewis told reporters. ``I must say that the findings of this study don't exactly bolster our confidence in Congress.'' MANY ex-members have not kept their campaign cash, either refunding it to donors or giving it to charity or both. Former Congressman Robert Whittaker (R) of Kansas, for example, gave more than $500,000 to Kansas State University.
But CPI is highlighting ex-members who kept the cash. Topping the list is ex-Congressman Larry Hopkins (R) of Kentucky, who, according to Federal Election Commission records, kept his $665,000 kitty for himself, even though he had promised publicly that he would not do so.
Mr. Hopkins was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that he had changed his mind about the money and that his action was legal.
Hopkins and the other ex-congressmen on the list - including Bob Traxler (D) of Michigan ($295,750 to personal use) and Carroll Hubbard Jr. (D) of Kentucky ($216,018) - are all operating under a 1979 law that allowed ex-members to keep leftover campaign cash as long as they began their service before 1980 and left before 1993. Though Congress has closed that loophole, the Federal Election Commission is planning new guidelines to ensure that members use excess campaign money ethically.
For now, the election commission rules on proposals by ex-members on a case-by-case basis. Some ex-members feel they are being unfairly tarred. According to CPI's research, former Defense Secretary Les Aspin, an ex-Democratic congressman from Wisconsin, spent some of his $140,334 war chest on inauguration festivities ($13,800), refunded $28,800 to contributors, and put the rest in certificates of deposit. But his campaign treasurer says Mr. Aspin put $85,000 into CDs only so the money could earn interest while he decided what to do with it.