Politics & Government

Nunes used political dollars for $15K in Celtics tickets, winery tours and Vegas trips

In this Feb. 6, 2018, photo, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, walks with Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., also a member of the Intelligence Committee, at the Capitol in Washington.
In this Feb. 6, 2018, photo, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, walks with Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., also a member of the Intelligence Committee, at the Capitol in Washington. Associated Press

Rep. Devin Nunes used political donations to pay for nearly $15,000 in tickets to Boston Celtics basketball games as well as winery tours and lavish trips to Las Vegas, according to reports from the Federal Election Commission and two nonpartisan watchdog groups.

Nunes, R-Calif., has reportedly been a Celtics fan since high school, though he grew up in Tulare, California. He used the money from his political action committee last year on three occasions to buy tickets.

His PAC also spent about $42,741 since 2013 on catering, site rentals, hotels and meals in Las Vegas. The most recent instance was March 9, when the PAC spent $7,229 at seven different restaurants and hotels in Las Vegas.

On June 19, the PAC’s expenditures included nearly $5,000 spent at six wineries in Paso Robles and Santa Margarita, both outside his district in California, and about $5,000 to Gold Coast Limousine the same day.

Also listed was a hotel charge for $4,409 at Sea Venture, a hotel about 20 miles from Santa Margarita and located right on the beach.

All Boston, Vegas and winery charges were listed as fundraising expenses.

Nunes responded, “I wish I could help you,” when McClatchy approached him Wednesday with questions about his PAC spending. His office would not respond to requests for comment.

Leadership PACs such as the one Nunes runs are supposed to be used to allow members of Congress to donate money to other political campaigns, but using them for other expenses in connection with fundraising is common among members of Congress.

Nunes’ fame has grown enormously due to his position as House Intelligence Committee chairman, his friendly relationship with President Donald Trump and his controversial views about Department of Justice investigations.

Many Democrats and some Republicans see his efforts as attempts to discredit the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russia during the 2016 presidential election.

As he became better known, Nunes’ fundraising ability has grown.

Nunes has raised more than $7 million for his own 2018 re-election, compared to past years when he typically collected between $1 million and $2.5 million. The PAC, called New PAC, has also seen its fundraising climb year after year, and is currently on track to raise and spend more money over the 2017-18 cycle than it did in years past.

A report by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center and Issue One, released Thursday, spotlighted the various ways members of Congress use leadership PACs to “subsidize lavish lifestyles on their donors’ dimes.”

Brendan Fischer and Maggie Christ, the report’s authors, estimated that on average over the past three election cycles 45 percent of money given to leadership PACs actually went to other candidates or political committees.

Nunes has a slightly better rate than average, with 52 percent of New PAC’s spending going toward campaign contributions.

“They’ll say these are fundraising events, or say it coincided with a fundraiser, where they raised more money with donors,” Fischer said. “But at what point are they effectively raising money just to fund their next fundraiser?”

The House Ethics Committee bans the use of leadership PACs for personal use, though it’s rarely enforced. The Federal Elections Commission has not issued clear directives on whether the funds can be used for personal matters.

Nunes’ PAC spent $7,300 on tickets at TD Garden, home of the Celtics, on Feb. 9, 2017, $5,700 on tickets on April 11, 2017 and $1,588 on tickets on May 8, 2017.

The Celtics had home games within a few days of those purchases. The May date was during playoffs against the Washington Wizards. The PAC also spent $3,594 for a four-star hotel in Boston, the Omni Parker House, on May 8, 2017.

Nunes raises little money from Massachusetts. His campaign fund has received about half of one percent of funding this cycle from Massachusetts and New PAC received one $5,000 donation from the state in this election cycle, from the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance PAC.

New PAC has raised about $565,400 so far in this 18-month old election cycle. It raised $731,000 the previous two-year cycle and $603,000 the cycle before that.

“Set aside that Nunes has got to be one of about 15 people in his district that spends the NBA season rooting for the guys from Teddy Kennedy’s turf instead of local favorites; the fact is, the FEC is not going to look favorably on a dude who uses his tax-exempt political entity like a personal slush fund, flying himself to Boston to watch them while apparently engaging in no activity relevant to the purpose of the political organization,” said Liz Mair, a Republican political strategist who heads the anti-Trump group Swamp Accountability Project. The group has been funding ads targeting Nunes.

While trips to Las Vegas were common enough among members of Congress to have its own category in the CLC and Issue One report, Nunes was listed as having spent the most there since 2013.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby
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