GOP lawmaker’s ‘meals with constituents’ draw scrutiny

Cameron Lancaster

Democrats are raising questions about hundreds of thousands in campaign cash longtime Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) spent on lunches and dinners with constituents over the past 18 years of his legislative career.

Since 1998, the former House Transportation Committee chairman has spent more than $230,000 on hundreds of “meals with constituents,” campaign records reveal. That includes $10,000 at restaurants hundreds of miles from home in New York, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Illinois, South Carolina and North Carolina.

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Democratic campaign officials say Mica categorizing so many of his meals as “meals with constituents” is a dubious practice that could constitute a violation of House Ethics rules. They allege that Mica, 73, has been feeding at the trough of campaign donors, not taxpayers.

“When a member uses his campaign account as a slush fund for his own personal use while earning a congressional salary, it raises damning ethical questions,” said Jermaine House, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The people of central Florida deserve better.”

In an interview Monday, Mica argued he’s adhered to House rules throughout his career and has done nothing wrong. He called the Democratic attacks politically motivated and “very desperate,” noting that he doesn’t accept free trips or seek reimbursements for personal mileage. 

“We always try to dot our i’s and cross our t’s,” Mica said. “I’m also one of the cheapest when it come to spending either my own money, campaign money or public money. Not one penny is squandered or wasted. … I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Other senior Florida Republican lawmakers spend thousands of campaign dollars each year on meals, though no one else from the Sunshine State’s delegation uses the description “meals with constituents.”

For example, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) spent $18,300 on “campaign meals” in 2014, while retiring Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) spent $9,727 on “food and beverages” that same year.

Mica has averaged roughly $12,800 a year on “meals with constituents” for the past 18 years, but that number spiked to nearly $40,000 in 2014 and $31,369 in 2013. The Mica campaign argued the congressman actually is saving taxpayer dollars: He expensed just $191 in meals to his official government account in 2014, while other lawmakers spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on meals.

The new attacks come as Mica faces a tough reelection bid after the Florida Supreme Court accepted a new congressional district map that made his once safely Republican seat much more diverse and suddenly competitive.

Mica’s campaign states that some of the “meals with constituents,” including those outside his district and D.C., were shared with campaign donors who live in his district. A $223 meal at Wally’s Pub in Scottsdale, Ariz., for example, occurred during the 2014 Delta Chi national convention, the campaign said. Mica treated a group from central Florida to dinner one night.

As for many of the meals in Washington, Mica said he frequently hosts elected officials, students, veterans, business leaders and other local constituents in the Members’ Dining Room in the Capitol or nearby restaurants.

“You can’t take everybody to lunch, but you do try to ... accommodate some of the community leaders,” Mica said. “It’s just my way of treating constituents and also political supporters.”

The campaign also contends that many of the meals were part of the congressman’s longstanding practice of donating lunches with him to local nonprofit groups in his Orlando-area district. These “lunches with the congressman” are used in silent auctions to help raise money for the nonprofits.

“These generate thousands of dollars of revenue for nonprofits in the district at no expense for them,” said Mica campaign spokesman Alan Byrd. “For instance, a recent donation to Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida raised more than $1,000 for this organization with several branches in the district.”

Some of the other nonprofits that have benefited from Mica’s generosity, according to the campaign: the Seminole County Foundation for Public Schools’ Arts Alive, Edgewood Children’s Ranch, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Orlando, Catholic Charities, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Florida and the Orlando Museum of Art.

Democrats note recent big-dollar expenses recorded by Mica, such as a $1,500 meal with constituents on Sept. 9 at a restaurant at the Chetola Resort at Blowing Rock in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where the Micas have a vacation home; a $1,447 meal at Fleming’s Steakhouse in his district and hometown of Winter Park, Fla., in 2014; a $1,143 meal at Magnolias restaurant and another $1,043 meal at Hank’s Seafood, both in Charleston, S.C., in 2013; and numerous meals between $200 and $600 each at Charlie Palmer Steak near the Capitol.

One of his favorite places to dine with constituents is the Winter Park Racquet Club in Florida, where he’s spent $15,000 over the years.

The House Ethics Committee permits lawmakers to use campaign funds to pay for meals with constituents when they visit Washington, but the guests cannot be personal friends or relatives. The committee doesn’t offer any guidance on “meals with constituents” outside of D.C. or whether donors can be considered “constituents.”

In other cases, the Ethics Committee has underscored that campaign funds are to be used for “bona fide campaign and political purposes” and not personal purposes or official business. That means meals may be expensed only if the meeting has a “clear, specific agenda of campaign business.”

The Ethics Committee “believes that any other interpretation … would open the door to a potentially wide range of abuse and could result in situations where campaign moneys were expended for personal enjoyment, entertainment, or economic well-being of an individual without any clear nexus that the funds so expended achieved any political benefit,” the committee wrote on its website.

The Ethics panel also strongly advises campaigns to keep records that show who attended each meal and what the specific political purpose of the meeting was.

Byrd insisted that Mica has been frugal when it comes to meals with constituents. Campaign-related meals in Washington are held at the Capitol Hill Club or a small number of D.C. venues at the “lowest cost possible,” Byrd said, adding that Mica hosts fundraising meetings at the club’s grill to cut costs.

The Mica records Democrats shared with The Hill show that it’s not just pricey steak dinners Mica is having with constituents.

There are small meals, too, like a $13 meal at We The Pizza on Capitol Hill, a favorite dining spot for Mica, and nearly a dozen meals under $10 each at Panera Bread in Winter Park.

Mica’s campaign said five separate “meals with constituents” he expensed at We The Pizza last July were meals he shared with his D.C. summer interns.

Explaining $5,000 in “meals with constituents” in North Carolina, Byrd said thousands of central Floridians visit or have summer homes in the Tarheel State. Mica and his wife, Patricia, have had a vacation home in Blowing Rock for 30 years and host an annual “fly-in destination fundraising event” at their home, the adjacent Chetola Resort and nearby restaurants. Former Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerRepublican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare The disorderly order of presidential succession MORE (R-Ohio) is among those who’ve attended in the past.

The Mica campaign also hosts a July family picnic for Florida constituents at an outdoor concert venue on the lake near the Blowing Rock vacation home, Byrd said. Guests include major donors from Florida.