INVESTIGATION: Leadership PACs pay for “Washington Mardi Gras”

Local News

(8/22/2018) They’re called Leadership Political Action Committees, but critics claim they’re nothing more than slush funds. NBC 10 Washington, D.C. correspondent Drew Petrimoulx investigates how Louisiana’s delegation uses other people’s money to bring Mardi Gras to the nation’s capital.  

They say it’s one of the best parties in town.  Washington Mardi Gras brings the pageantry and revelry of Bourbon Street to the nation’s capital.

It’s a three-day affair complete with cocktail parties, a pageant and even an indoor parade.

The Louisiana congressional delegation is heavily involved, and they help foot the bill to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The money comes from lawmakers’ Leadership Political Action Committees.

First allowed by the FEC 40 years ago, Leadership PACs provided a way for elected officials to raise money and dole it out to other like-minded politicians and candidates.

Over the past two years, Senator Bill Cassidy, R-LA, spent a total of more than $100,000 on the yearly party for catering and event space at the Washington Hilton and for tickets from the Mystic Krewe which puts on the events.

Over the same period, Representative Steve Scalise, R-LA, used his Leadership PAC to spend nearly $40,000 at the Hilton and more than $53,000 on tickets.

Congressmen Ralph Abraham, R-LA, Clay Higgins, R-LA, Cedric Richmond, D-LA and Senator John Kennedy, R-LA, also used their Leadership PAC money to support Washington Mardi Gras.

All told, members of the Louisiana delegation spent more than a $250,000 on the 2017 and 2018 events.

It’s held at the Washington Hilton — one of the premiere venues spaces in the city. Scores of louisianians travel to D.C. for the celebration. There are meetings and mingling. Some lawmakers also host fundraisers.

But critics say Leadership PACs have strayed from their original intent.

“It’s just one more thing that makes people feel that politicians are disconnected from their constituents,” said Ellen Weintraub, Vice Chair of the Federal Elections Commission, who has spent years trying to rein in spending by Leadership PACs. “I don’t think their intent is to subsidize the lifestyle of the people who are receiving the money.”

But that’s exactly what Michael Beckel with Issue One says lawmakers across the country are doing.
“They are collecting money from special interest groups that have business before their committees and donors who have already maxed out to their campaigns,” Beckel said. 
 
Issue One conducted a nationwide study that found lawmakers use that money to pay for things like luxury resorts, golf memberships, fine dining and big parties.

“If you’ve got additional pots of money that a special interest or wealthy donor knows that they can give to curry favor, that’s one more potential avenue for corruption in the process,” Beckel said. 
 
The Louisiana lawmakers defend their participation in Washington Mardi Gras. They say it promotes the state.

During the events they meet with other officials and constituents, hearing about the needs and concerns of people in Louisiana.  

But no-one from the Louisiana congressional delegation was willing to discuss their support for Washington Mardi Gras on camera.

“I think all the critics of this show that they really don’t trust the American people to make their own decisions on the candidates that they want to vote for,” said Former FEC commissioner Hans Von Spakovsky, a defender of Leadership PACs.

He argues that they are an expression of political free speech and there’s nothing secret about the spending.

Beckel and Weintraub say the Leadership PACs need more regulation. But Weintraub can’t muster the votes on the FEC to limit their spending.

“I could write a scathing statement about it,” she said. “But I couldn’t actually punish anybody.”

Change would likely require new laws passed by the very people taking advantage of the status quo: members of congress.
 

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