Spending on Christmas parties among allegations in ethics report on Sanford Bishop

Georgia Democrat's office says congressman has rectified mistakes, reimbursed funds

Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., D-Ga., is under scrutiny for his use of taxpayer funds and campaign cash. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., D-Ga., is under scrutiny for his use of taxpayer funds and campaign cash. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 31, 2020 at 4:34pm

Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. may have used thousands in campaign funds for personal expenses on gas fill-ups for him and his family, greens fees at country clubs, luxurious trips and school tuition.

Further, the Georgia Democrat also may have spent more than $16,000 in taxpayer money for joint Christmas parties — featuring a saxophonist and DJ equipment — with his congressional staff and his wife’s employees, according to an Office of Congressional Ethics report released Friday.

The OCE report was released because the House Ethics Committee decided to further extend its investigation into Bishop.

The allegations are broken down into two categories: improper use of campaign funds and impermissible use of Sanford’s Members’ Representational Allowance, both of which would be violations of federal law and House rules. The MRA is taxpayer-funded money only to be used to support official member duties, such as staff salaries and official travel.

The OCE found “widespread mismanagement and misuse of the Sanford Bishop for Congress campaign committee funds” in which Bishop may have misused the money for personal pursuits. The office also said some of the spending in question could be tied to Evelyn Turner Pugh, who was employed as treasurer from 1993 until 2019 and may have misspent campaign funds on herself and falsified Federal Election Commission filings. Pugh made several errors and misused funds, the OCE said.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for Bishop emailed a statement to CQ Roll Call from a House account labeled only PressInquiries, GA02: “Congressman Bishop is dedicated to honoring the principles and values of his office. Before the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) notified him of its review, he was made aware of mistakes made by his campaign and had already taken immediate action to bring it into compliance. Congressman Bishop has fully cooperated with the OCE’s review and proactively reimbursed many of the charges OCE identified as incorrect. He will continue to work with the Ethics Committee openly and transparently, and is prepared to take any further, necessary corrective action.”

The Office of Congressional Ethics determined Bishop — along with his wife, Vivian Creighton Bishop, and daughter — may have used campaign funds to pay for personal fuel charges. Vivian would routinely fill her vehicle using campaign funds and did not log her campaign mileage, the OCE found.

Since 2003, Bishop’s campaign committee has spent over $213,000 on gas including at Shell, BP, Chevron, Citgo and Exxon, FEC filings show.

Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., reacts as the ball grazes the hole but does not go in during the First Tee Congressional Challenge golf tournament at the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md., on July 27, 2015.

Golf outings

In 1999, Bishop became a member at Stonebridge Golf and Country Club in Albany, Georgia, where he held an annual golf fundraiser, “the Sanford Bishop Golf Classic,” at the club from 1998 through 2012, a legitimate campaign expense.

However, Bishop paid monthly billing statements from the club — from campaign coffers — that include membership dues, driving range fees, locker fees, guest greens fees, golf cart usage and golf supplies. From 2009 to 2019 Bishop’s campaign committee paid over $30,000 in campaign funds for membership dues, range fees among other expenditures.

“Rep. Bishop acknowledged it ‘was a mistake’ for the campaign committee to pay the SGCC monthly membership dues and associated fees,” the OCE report states.

Membership dues are automatically considered personal use by the FEC and using campaign funds to pay for them is a violation of federal law.

In 2014, Bishop joined Green Island Country Club in Columbus, Georgia, a club he moved his annual golf fundraiser to the year before. Bishop paid a $5,000 initiation fee with campaign funds to join Green Island. Between 2014 and 2019, Bishop spent over $16,200 in campaign funds on meals and golf cart fees. This total excludes costs associated with Bishop’s golf fundraiser.

“While Rep. Bishop believes that his time on the golf course has assisted his campaigns for reelection, he also acknowledged that some of his golf-related campaign spending constituted personal use,” the OCE said.

The OCE identified several purchases that were paid for with campaign money that Bishop acknowledged were personal: a $95 pair of golf shoes, $81 for golf grips and a $21 golf glove.

“The campaign committee also paid for a $938.07 set of Mizuno JPX irons, and Rep. Bishop was subsequently fitted for these irons during a $50.00, one-hour-plus fitting session with the GICC Golf Pro,” the OCE said.

Bishop told the OCE he originally intended to buy the clubs, but later raffled them off.

Bishop’s attorneys at Perkins Coie wrote to the Ethics Committee on July 29 to say their client had rectified the issue.

“Representative Bishop has terminated the practice of using Campaign funds to pay for membership dues at Green Island Country Club and Stonebridge Golf and Country Club. Representative Bishop now pays personally for all such memberships and he has reimbursed his Campaign for dues payments and other disbursements made to these country clubs,” wrote Brian G. Svoboda and Aria C. Branch.

'Strengths and weaknesses'

Bishop took a three-day golf trip in 2018, funded by campaign dollars, to Reynolds Lake Oconee, a luxury golf and lakeside resort in Georgia. Bishop and his guests played three rounds of golf, each costing over $1,000. Their stay at a cottage cost the campaign over $2,300.

Bishop told the OCE that “the purpose of the retreat was to review and critique the previous tournament, identify strengths and weaknesses and plan for the 2018 [Golf Classic].”

He was unable to produce documentation to the OCE showing the trip was campaign related.

Bishop said to the OCE he may have improperly spent campaign funds in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where his family rents a house annually around Christmas.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn and his family also rent a home nearby where the two families share a meal on Christmas. Bishop spent campaign money on liquor, groceries and greens fees during this time, the OCE said.

Bishop acknowledged that this money was likely for personal use.

In a separate instance, Bishop’s wife withdrew over $600 in campaign money, which he said was mistakenly used to pay for his granddaughter’s school tuition. This is automatically considered personal use by the FEC.

Vivian Bishop is the wife of Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga. She works as the municipal court clerk for Columbus, Georgia. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Christmas party or constituent meeting?

Bishop may have misspent over $16,000 in MRA funds on joint annual holiday parties held at Green Island Country Club, the OCE report states.

“The OCE found evidence suggesting that these gatherings were annual holiday celebrations thrown by Rep. Bishop and his wife for their respective staffs,” the report states.

Bishop’s wife, Vivian, is the municipal court clerk for Columbus, Georgia and has a staff of around 20 people. Together, from 2015 to 2018, the couple held an annual Christmas party at Green Island Country Club using Bishop’s Members’ Representational Allowance.

When they got the initial copies of the bills, either Bishop or his wife called and asked the country club to label the food invoice as a “constituents meeting,” the OCE report states.

“When asked about these annual gatherings, Rep. Bishop denied that they were holiday gatherings and insisted that they were end of the year ‘constituent meetings,’” the OCE found.

However the country club’s event coordinator described the events as “joint staff Christmas part[ies].”

Those expenditures also have been addressed, according to Perkins Coie’s Svoboda and Branch, who told the Ethics Committee in their July 29 letter that On June 2, 2020, “Representative Bishop reimbursed the U.S. Treasury for the cost of the four annual constituent events for which he paid using the Member’s Representational Allowance (the ‘MRA’), and which OCE disputed.”

Bishop’s campaign has paid Perkins Coie $78,000 for “legal services” since OCE sent its completed report to the House Ethics Committee on February 10. Bishop’s legal fee expenditures to Perkins Coie began in March.

“Congressman Bishop has changed campaign treasurers, retained the services of an experienced compliance consultant to prepare and file the campaign’s reports, and engaged the law firm Perkins Coie to conduct a thorough review of his campaign’s finances,” Bishop’s spokesperson said. “The Congressman recognizes that these mistakes should never have happened to begin with. Going forth, he intends to provide better oversight to ensure errors like this never happen again. Serving the people of Georgia’s 2nd Congressional District is an honor, a privilege, and a responsibility Congressman Bishop is deeply committed to upholding as he works to bring this matter to a close.”