Ethics watchdog finds 'substantial' evidence of improper spending by Rep. Sanford Bishop

Ethics watchdog finds 'substantial' evidence of improper spending by Rep. Sanford Bishop
© Greg Nash

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) concluded in a report made public Friday that there is "substantial" evidence that Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) improperly used campaign and taxpayer funds for his own personal use.

Bishop acknowledged to the OCE that some of the spending it identified was improper, but also tried to offer explanations for why other spending that appeared to be for personal use should be considered as for political purposes.

The OCE said it found evidence that Bishop's campaign committee likely spent tens of thousands of dollars on gas, golf fees, meals, travel, tuition and entertainment that appeared to be for personal use rather than official campaign activities.

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It also alleged that Bishop, who has served in the House since 1993 and represents a solidly Democratic district, spent taxpayer funds from his congressional office budget on an annual holiday celebration in violation of House rules.

The OCE is an independent entity that reviews allegations of lawmaker misconduct and refers cases to the House Ethics Committee for further investigation. Only the House Ethics Committee, which is evenly split between Republican and Democratic members, has the authority to punish lawmakers if it concludes that misconduct occurred.

The House Ethics Committee said Friday that it is extending its review of Bishop, adding that "the mere fact of conducting further review of a referral, and any mandatory disclosure of such further review, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee."

The OCE report's release came the same day the House voted to formally sanction Rep. David SchweikertDavid SchweikertDemocrat Hiral Tipirneni wins Ariz. primary to challenge Rep. David Schweikert Ethics watchdog finds 'substantial' evidence of improper spending by Rep. Sanford Bishop House votes to sanction Schweikert over ethics violations MORE (R-Ariz.) for violating campaign finance rules and improperly using official resources for his reelection efforts. The measure, adopted by voice vote, imposes a $50,000 fine on Schweikert that must be paid to the U.S. Treasury by the end of October.

For Bishop, the OCE said it found evidence that his campaign committee was paying for the lawmaker's monthly dues and associated fees from two golf clubs. Bishop held an annual fundraiser, known as the Sanford Bishop Golf Classic, at the clubs, but the OCE found that the campaign committee was paying for activities and items that appeared to be for the lawmaker's personal use.

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Between January 2009 and September 2019, that spending amounted to $30,177 at one of the golf clubs, and another $33,338 at the second golf club from May 2014 to September 2019. The campaign committee also spent a combined $23,000 on additional meals, greens fees, golf cart fees and golf merchandise at the two clubs.

Bishop acknowledged it “was a mistake” for the campaign committee to pay for the monthly membership fees and has stopped doing so, according to OCE.

But Bishop defended his time at the golf club as campaign related. The OCE report said that for Bishop, being at the golf club "affords him the opportunity to 'run into' supporters and constituents and then discuss political issues over a round of golf or a meal."

"In other words, Rep. Bishop is not holding specific fundraising events at the club; instead, he is using the club’s facilities, at least on some occasions, by himself or with his wife, and then interacting with supporters and constituents that seek him out during a round of golf or at a Sunday brunch," the OCE report said.

However, the ethics office said it "could not determine to what extent these additional, non-Golf Classic charges were in furtherance of bona fide campaign or political purposes."

In addition, Bishop acknowledged to OCE that the campaign had paid for other personal expenses, including $660 for his granddaughter's school tuition, which Bishop said his wife accidentally paid from the campaign's bank account, and $18.99 for an on-demand movie at a resort.

The OCE said it determined that Bishop, his wife and his daughter might have used campaign funds for personal fuel expenses as well. The report said Bishop does not keep a mileage log and therefore he could not determine how much gas was used for campaign, personal or official purposes. But according to the OCE report, Bishop argued that even routine activities inevitably involve "some political component."

"Rep. Bishop believes he does very little travel that is 'strictly personal.' He told the OCE he is engaged in political discussions wherever he travels, meaning that in his view, a trip to the grocery store, Walmart, golf course, or other venue that may appear personal on its face, almost always entails some political component," the OCE report states.

The report added that Bishop "acknowledged that his and his wife’s failure to log or document their mileage was problematic."

The OCE investigation further found that Bishop held annual holiday banquets at one of the golf clubs with his wife, who is clerk of the municipal court in Columbus, Ga., for their respective staffs, and used funds from his congressional office budget to pay for them. That amounted to more than $16,000 between 2015 and 2018.

The golf club's banquet coordinator and Bishop's campaign treasurer both described the events as holiday parties. The invoices submitted to the House Finance Office labeled each event as a "constituents meeting."

Bishop denied to OCE that they were holiday gatherings.

“We can’t have Christmas parties [with annual office budgets], but we can have constituent meetings and it’s the end of the year. So, it’s like a holiday gathering, but it’s actually a constituent
meeting," Bishop said, according to the OCE report.