By Susan Crabtree - 03/31/08 07:54 PM EDT
Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) top aide spent more than $2,000 of campaign money to buy a rifle and other items for himself at a National Rifle Association (NRA) charity auction, raising questions about whether the transaction violated House ethics rules and campaign finance law.
John Hugya, Murtha’s chief of staff, reimbursed the campaign Friday for the expenses after The Hill inquired about the use of campaign money for personal items.
In a written statement, Murtha spokesman Matthew Mazonkey said that neither Hugya nor the campaign anticipated any legal or ethical issues with the purchase because federal campaign law allows campaigns to donate to charities such as Friends of the NRA. Nevertheless, to avoid “any question about compliance,” Hugya reimbursed the campaign for the items, and Murtha’s campaign issued a statement.
“On Sept. 21, 2006, the NRA Foundation held a charity fundraising auction in Congressman Murtha’s district,” it said. “The Murtha for Congress Committee sent Mr. Hugya, who was a paid consultant to the campaign, to represent them at this event. The campaign supported the Foundation by bidding at the auction, and since it had no use of its own for the items won, let Mr. Hugya keep the items.”
Mazonkey also noted that Hugya paid the necessary federal and state taxes on the items and disclosed the gifts on his 2007 personal financial disclosure statement.
“Neither the campaign nor Mr. Hugya had any reason to doubt that they were complying with the law,” he continued.
Federal election law allows campaigns to contribute to charities, but ethics experts and campaign finance lawyers say the law does not address auctions specifically or whether members or staff can keep the purchased items. This gray area of the law also does not say whether in such cases the charitable-contribution allowance trumps House gift rules or campaign finance laws preventing the use of campaign money for personal items.
House ethics rules prohibit the conversion of campaign funds to personal use except when members or staffers are being reimbursed for “legitimate and verifiable” expenses or for “bona fide” political or campaign purposes.
Federal campaign finance laws also bar the use of campaign money for personal expenses. They allow only the use of campaign funds for “gifts of a nominal value and donations of a nominal amount made on a special occasion such as a holiday graduation, marriage, retirement or death.” These types of gifts can be given to staffers, supporters or contributors.
“If they took campaign funds and bought a car for a staffer, that would clearly be an illegal conversion,” said Larry Noble, a former general counsel to the Federal Election Commission who is now at Skadden Arps, Slate Meagher & Flom.
Because the items were bought at an NRA charity auction, Noble said, the Murtha campaign could argue that they were simply byproducts of a charitable contribution. But it would have a stronger case for that argument if Hugya simply had received a gift bag of no major value. Because the gifts were worth $2,000, they should have been sold to avoid any and all legal questions, according to Noble.
“The campaign could sell [the items], and that’s what they’re supposed to do,” he said.
Others are more skeptical.
“Regardless of whatever lawyerly argument was made, I don’t think you could argue that this is kosher,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. “Campaign funds are not supposed to be used for personal use, and at the end of the day, the chief of staff got a gun of great value.”
McGehee also called on the ethics committee to review the Hugya case in order to define the gray area of the law.
“One would hope the ethics committee would be made aware of this situation and make a finding,” she said. “Its purpose is to provide guidance so that other members and staffers know what’s kosher and what’s not.”
Hugya’s financial disclosure report for 2006 lists $2,151 in “items purchased from NRA at a charitable event” as a gift it received that year from the Murtha’s campaign committee. The Murtha campaign listed the $2,151 as payment to Friends of the NRA for “advertising.” When asked about the discrepancy, Mazonkey said listing the purpose of the payment as advertising was simply a clerical mistake.
“The Murtha for Congress Committee sponsors and attends hundreds of events throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania,” Mazonkey wrote in an e-mail. “The items purchased at auction during an NRA event included one rifle, a couple of knives, an NRA blanket and other miscellaneous items.”
The NRA Foundation website says net proceeds of Friends of the NRA events benefit such projects as “youth firearm safety and education programs, hunter education, [shooting] range development, women’s safety classes and wildlife conservation efforts.”
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam would not say whether Murtha or his staff, or any member of Congress and his or her aides, had purchased auction items in the past, or whether they used their campaign committees to do so.
“We don’t give out information on how people pay for their transactions,” he said. “But it’s very common for politicians or their surrogates to attend NRA events. It is very likely that politicians and their staffers have bought firearms at Friends of the NRA events.”