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Ethics office: Rep. Mooney tapped campaign funds for family vacations, fast food

Republican repaid more than $12,000 after inquiry began

Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W. Va., is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee over whether he improperly spent campaign funds for personal use and if he failed to properly report campaign expenditures.
Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W. Va., is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee over whether he improperly spent campaign funds for personal use and if he failed to properly report campaign expenditures. (CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Alex X. Mooney spent thousands of campaign dollars on personal expenses, including numerous fast food meals and family excursions to West Virginia resorts, while failing to properly report more than $40,000 in expenditures, the Office of Congressional Ethics found.

The four-term West Virginia Republican’s deficient reporting to the Federal Election Commission concealed additional instances of converting campaign funds for personal use, according to an OCE report, which was obtained by CQ Roll Call. After the OCE launched its inquiry, Mooney paid his campaign back more than $12,000.

OCE’s six-member, bipartisan board of private citizens voted unanimously in July to have the Ethics Committee review the matter further. The Ethics Committee is now doing its own investigation to determine whether Mooney omitted required information from FEC reports or converted campaign funds for personal use, according to documents reviewed by CQ Roll Call.

The committee, which is made up of five Republican and five Democratic House members, has subpoena power and can impose penalties, including fines.

“Congressman Mooney is cooperating fully with the inquiry into this matter,” Mark Harris, a Mooney campaign spokesperson, said in an emailed statement.

Members are prohibited by federal law and House rules from spending campaign money on personal pursuits.

It is unclear what the House Ethics Committee will do to discipline Mooney, if anything. Sanctions could range from no punishment to a recommendation that the full House vote for expulsion, the latter of which is unlikely. 

Two similar recent cases both ended without action. The Ethics Committee established an investigative subcommittee into possible misuse of campaign funds by former Democratic Rep. Robert Andrews, but dropped it after he resigned in 2014. The committee also deferred action to the Justice Department on former GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter of California. He resigned from Congress in 2020 after pleading guilty.

“Personal use means any use of funds … to fulfill a commitment, obligation or expense of any person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s campaign or duties as a Federal officeholder,” FEC regulations say.

House rules “require that Members be able to verify that campaign funds have not been used for personal purposes.”

Spokesmen for the OCE and the House Ethics Committee declined to comment on the report. The OCE board voted July 16 to send its report to the committee. Under OCE procedures, the report could become public 45 to 90 days after the committee receives it.  

Mooney charged his campaign for numerous meals at restaurants near his home or district office, some of which the OCE said were impermissible, according to the report. While there are exceptions, FEC regulations require there to be a clear campaign rationale for a meal purchased with campaign money, or for it to be connected to a campaign event or political engagement.

The OCE found that Alex Mooney for Congress, the lawmaker’s campaign committee, has made 220 disbursements of $25 or less at restaurants in West Virginia since 2017, the beginning of his second term. The $3,475 tab includes spending at Chick-Fil-A, Taco Bell and pizza shops.

About a $12 meal at Wingstop, Mooney told the OCE he had picked up campaign mail from a post office in Martinsburg, W.Va., and stopped at Wingstop afterward to have lunch and visit constituents, the report said. OCE said that reply underscored a misunderstanding of personal use rules regarding meals.

“In his interview, Rep. Mooney stated that he feels justified in charging meals to the campaign any time there are constituents at the location he happens to choose to eat at that day,” the OCE report said.

An excerpt in the report from Mooney’s interview with OCE investigators illustrates how he spent campaign money on meals.

OCE: When do you charge the campaign for a meal?

Rep. Mooney: Generally when I’m visiting with constituents.

OCE: Okay. So for — when you say visiting with constituents, what do you mean? Do you mean a planned meeting?

Rep. Mooney: Not necessarily, no, as I described earlier a lot of site visits I do, I just walk in and say “hi.”

OCE: So if you — let’s say you go to Chick-Fil-A and you charge that to the campaign, the justification for that, being that there are constituents at the Chick-Fil-A that you spoke to?

Rep. Mooney: Yes. Yeah, I was meeting with constituents.

The OCE noted that although some of these fast food purchases could have been related to a campaign purpose — and thus, allowable — Mooney’s “clear conviction that individual day-to-day meals can be paid for by the campaign indicate that a large portion fall within the prohibited category.”

Family vacations

The OCE found that at least two trips Mooney made to West Virginia resorts — one to Canaan Valley Resort and one to Smoke Hole Caverns and Log Cabin Resort — primarily constituted personal use of campaign funds, the report said.

In late December 2018, Mooney and his family spent “a few days” at Canaan Valley Resort, which is located in Davis, W.Va., outside of the 2nd District he represents. When asked by investigators if the trip had been planned around the Christmas or New Year’s holidays, Mooney said it hadn’t and called it “more of a site visit” to visit employees and those who work in the area. Mooney also said he planned to meet with a donor, but the meeting never happened. 

“The evidence suggests that the trip to Canaan Valley Resort is most appropriately characterized as a multi-night, resort holiday vacation for Rep. Mooney and his family, paid for with campaign funds, that he unsuccessfully attempted to characterize as an official site visit during his interview,” the OCE said.

Mooney reimbursed his campaign $2,445 for expenses related to Canaan Valley Resort at the direction of his lawyer, Dirk Haire, who is also chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, the report said.

Mooney’s May 2020 visit to Smoke Hole Resort was another trip that raised concerns and had not been reimbursed, the report said. Mooney traveled with at least one of his children for a one-night stay at the resort on May 13, and billed the campaign $189. On May 14, the campaign spent $302 at Smoke Hole Outfitters, which offers guided fishing tours.

Mooney, who did not produce receipts, told OCE it was “for fishing for staff” while on an official district tour, the report said. The OCE, however, concluded, “the weight of the evidence indicates that no staff members were present on this tour.”

On his way to Smoke Hole Resort, Mooney visited a local business in his congressional district called Hardy Telecommunications. On the evening of May 12 — after the resort stay was booked — Chad Story, Mooney’s district director at the time, emailed an employee of Hardy Telecommunications, according to the report.

The email said Mooney was “unexpectedly going to be in Moorfield tomorrow,” and had a 30-minute window to meet for an update on the business from 10 to 10:30 a.m. Smoke Hole Resort is around 25 minutes away from Hardy Telecommunications. A subsequent email in that chain said Mooney would be accompanied by his 5-year-old child.

“It appears most likely that a personal trip with his daughters was the primary purpose for the travel, and the minimal official or campaign activity was incident to that purpose,” the OCE said.

Reporting omissions

Mooney’s campaign failed to properly disclose at least $40,115 in spending since 2017, the OCE concluded. FEC regulations require that campaigns itemize their expenditures to show what the money was spent on, not just who received a reimbursement.

The finding focused on two categories of spending: $22,865 that Mooney received in unitemized reimbursements from the campaign, and $17,250 related to gift card purchases at St. James Parish and St. Zita’s Gift Shop.

Of the $22,865 in unitemized reimbursements Mooney received from the campaign, Mooney provided documentation for around $8,461. From those details Mooney produced, the OCE found at least 72 meal purchases in West Virginia for a total of $848.

Mooney paid his campaign back $12,139 for his personal expenditures. That list of items the lawmaker reimbursed the campaign for included “clear cases of personal use,” the OCE said. This includes $947 in propane utility bills Mooney split with the campaign because he uses his basement as a campaign office space. The Canaan Valley Resort trip was also included in the reimbursements.

Mooney’s campaign spent $17,250 for gift card purchases at his church, St. James Parish, and its gift store, St. Zita’s Gift Shop, and used them mainly for campaign-related grocery store purchases. Mooney said he used the gift cards because the purchases benefit the church with a percentage of the gift card’s value. 

The OCE said this process “circumvents and likely violates FEC regulations requiring disclosure of the ultimate recipient of campaign funds.”

Overall, according to the OCE, “there is reason to believe” lack of proper disclosure “has had the effect, whether intended or not, of concealing thousands of dollars of personal use.”

Kedric Payne, an ethics expert at the Campaign Legal Center who had been deputy chief counsel at the OCE, said federal law and House rules are clear that officials cannot use campaign funds for personal expenses.

“The House rules even require members to keep evidence verifying that campaign funds are not used for personal expenses,” Payne said. “Misuse of campaign funds is more problematic when there is evidence of missing information in FEC reports because it suggests criminal intent to cover up a violation. The personal use ban is well established because elected officials betray the public’s trust when they convert campaign funds to personal slush funds.”

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