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Kamala Harris's spending on upscale hotels, first-class airfare draws scrutiny

Kamala Harris's spending on upscale hotels, first-class airfare draws scrutiny
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California’s top Senate candidate Kamala Harris has been using her campaign account to fund stays in upscale hotels and first-class airfares during her nearly five-year tenure as state attorney general.

A review by The Hill of California campaign finance records reveals that Harris’s expenditures follow a pattern: The Democratic candidate regularly charges thousands of dollars in luxury travel and hotels to her campaign.

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Meanwhile, Harris’s staffers usually take cheaper flights and stay in hotels for closer to $250 a night, according to both inside sources and state campaign finance reports.

A number of former Harris aides say that for them the most discomfiting aspect of her use of campaign funds was the backdrop of austerity in California’s government. 

When Gov. Jerry Brown (D) took office in 2011 he introduced a culture of frugality for himself, his staff and the government workers he now oversaw, sources say.

When Harris was sworn in, California’s budget was in turmoil and departments, including her own Department of Justice, were ordered to find savings that included staff cuts.

“The environment was people were literally taking the cheap Southwest flight,” said a source involved in the administration at the time.

Harris’s own spending jarred with the government’s austerity mandate, former aides say.

While the Harris campaign’s spending has come under scrutiny this election cycle — most recently in a National Journal report on luxury travel — The Hill’s investigation reveals that these expenditure patterns are consistent from January 2011 through the present.

In a standard trip, for example, Harris billed her campaign $2,482.70 in January 2013 for Delta Airlines “airfare for candidate from Washington D.C./campaign events/Presidential Inauguration,” according to state records. 

On that same trip Harris stayed in D.C.’s upscale St. Regis hotel, billing her campaign $3,434.74 for a four-night stay, a nightly rate of $858.69.

The next month, Harris charged $2,381.70 for “airfare for candidate to New Orleans/campaign event, issues.” Later, she stayed in the St. Regis in D.C. ($823.67), The Beverly Hilton ($1,722.59) and The London NYC hotel ($1,093.20).

Another representative trip was taken on April 7, 2014. Harris used her campaign account a stay at the St. Regis for one night at a cost to her campaign of $699.24. During that same trip Harris charged $2,093 for “airfare for candidate to Washington D.C. and Seattle.” 

Harris’s filings since July 1, 2014, are less detailed and do not specifying the trips’ purposes, but the cost patterns are similar.

There is a stay at the St. Regis for $974.71; at The London NYC for $2,257.33; a United Airlines fee for $4,297.80; a $472.35 fee for limousines in New York; and $180 for limos in Aspen.

All these items were charged to Harris’s campaign account. 

Asked how Harris justifies using campaign funds for expensive flights and hotels, spokesman Nathan Click said in a statement: “The Attorney General makes appropriate use of campaign funds for political travel.”

Declining to answer specific questions about the expenses, Click added, “Her rigorous travel schedule has allowed her to establish a national fundraising base while representing California at key gatherings like [the] Democratic Attorneys General Association meetings.”

Although such spending is legal, campaign supporters often are wary of their money being used on what many perceive to be nonessential expenses.

Interviews with sources close to Harris’s campaign and former aides both inside her political operation and state office suggest that staffers have been uncomfortable with the spending.

“Staff has always worried about Kamala’s spending, but she is adamant about using campaign money as she wants,” said a former aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“She treats the campaign like a personal checking account to fund a lifestyle she aspires to,” the former aide added.

Another ex-aide said that “Kamala demands a life of luxury.” 

“I kind of walked into the system … and within a few weeks a lot of things made me feel uncomfortable.” 

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has yet to endorse Harris for the 2016 Senate race, but she remains the favorite to win the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerSenate clears water bill with Flint aid, drought relief Senate Dem blocks own bill over California drought language House passes water bill with Flint aid, drought relief MORE.

Polls have shown Harris ahead of her opponents, including Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.). But Sanchez has gained ground recently and secured the endorsements of California Democratic Reps. Anna Eshoo and Sam FarrSam FarrDEA decision against reclassifying marijuana ignores public opinion 19 House Democrats' sites hacked at close of gun sit-in Dems push for allowing base closures MORE.

The Harris campaign has been criticized for how quickly it uses funds raised and for high staff turnover including the departures of a campaign manager and two finance directors. Some ex-aides said they felt alienated by Harris’s management style.

Since announcing her bid for the Senate in January, Harris has raised $6 million and spent $2.7 million, 45 percent of the total. In the most recent fundraising quarter, she raised $1.8 million and spent $1.4 million, a rate of 78 percent, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

While Harris is still expected to win the Senate race, a Democratic strategist familiar with the campaign predicted her high spending is “going to backfire terribly with donors.” 

“Donors hate this shit when they’re going around making representations that she’s in a competitive race, and she’s spending that way to support her diva lifestyle,” the strategist said.

“It was hers for the taking as long as she ran a typical, strong race. … But she’s run a rather weak race. She’s raised money, yes, but not as much as she should have. She’s spending an ungodly amount.

“She wants to live the life of someone in the White House,” the strategist continued, “and she hasn’t even won the Senate yet. Her hanging around the president and first lady … it’s gotten her hooked. She thinks it’s her birthright and it’s not.”