U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, has spent nearly $1 million from his political funds this election cycle despite having only token opposition standing between him and a 21st term in Congress, according to his most recent campaign finance reports.
Among his expenditures: By Aug. 31, the 82-year-old congressman had paid $66,000 over the current two-year election cycle to his wife, Cynthia Doyle Rogers, for “event planning.” She gets $3,000 a month, reports show.
The money came from his leadership political action committee, called Help America’s Leaders PAC, or HALPAC, which is heavily funded by defense contractors in Washington. Rogers holds a senior position on the House Appropriations subcommittees that dole out federal defense and homeland security funding to his donors, including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and L3Harris Technologies.
At the same time it was paying the congressman’s wife for event planning, HALPAC paid $84,489 to a professional fundraising firm in Washington, District City Consulting, for its assistance.
Members of Congress operate leadership PACs to raise money that they can give to other politicians’ campaigns. But just 21% of HALPAC’s $270,965 in spending has gone to political contributions this election cycle. The rest has paid for the PAC’s “administrative costs,” such as travel, meals, gifts, postage and professional fees.
For example, HALPAC had spent about $20,000 on events in affluent Naples, Fla., 933 miles south of Rogers’ 5th Congressional District in Southeastern Kentucky. Naples is where Hal and Cynthia Rogers own a condo at “a lush tropical paradise” country club near the Gulf of Mexico.
Among HALPAC’s favorite Naples haunts are Italian restaurants Amore Ristorante and Caffè dell’Amore, where it paid for meals, and The Ritz-Carlton Naples, with its 18-hole Tiburón Golf Club, where it paid for “events.” HALPAC also reports purchasing $767 worth of cigars in and around Naples this election cycle.
Rogers’ re-election campaign committee, called Hal Rogers for Congress, had spent $642,563 as of June 30. Among its expenditures this election cycle: $18,000 so far for Tracy Rogers, the congressman’s daughter-in-law, and $36,000 so far for Bob Mitchell, his longtime friend and former district director who retired from Rogers’ office in 2012.
‘HIS HARDEST WORKERS AND GREATEST CHEERLEADERS’
Tracy Rogers, married to Rogers’ son John, is credited by campaign finance records with “database maintenance.” She declined to comment for this story, saying, “I don’t know anything about that, I’m so sorry,” before hanging up the phone.
Mitchell, who spent more than 30 years in Rogers’ district office, is cited for “strategic campaign consulting.” He did not return a call seeking comment.
At the same time the campaign committee paid Tracy Rogers and Mitchell, it also was paying several hundred thousand dollars to firms in Washington and Frankfort for professional services including bookkeeping, records management, advertising and political promotion.
Rogers spokeswoman Danielle Smoot said the political committee payments to members of the congressman’s inner circle are legal under campaign finance laws. Those payments were made in addition to money paid to the outside firms for their own professional services, Smoot said.
“It is not uncommon for friends and family members of candidates to work on election campaigns, as they are often the most confident in the candidate’s ability to serve with great integrity and success, as is the case with Congressman Rogers. His family and friends are his hardest workers and greatest cheerleaders,” Smoot said.
“Bob Mitchell has led the campaign strategy for Hal Rogers since his first election in 1980, and he is well-known across the state for his effective work,” Smoot said. “Tracy Rogers performs database management and helps with other administrative campaign tasks, largely centered around the congressman’s extensive campaign mailing list and social letters.”
“Cynthia Rogers performs event planning and other administrative functions for HALPAC events in Kentucky; Naples, Fla.; and elsewhere,” Smoot said. “These events, including those in Naples, bring together Kentuckians and others from around the country who believe in the GOP platform and trust the congressman to support candidates who share their values.”
While the payments are legal, “it’s certainly not a good look for the congressman,” said Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocate in Washington. Gilbert has studied political fundraising and spending in Congress for many years.
“It’s unsavory to spend this money in ways that personally benefit yourself or your family or friends, but it’s technically legal if you can make the claim that it all somehow supports your re-election effort or your PAC’s fundraising,” Gilbert said.
“That’s the smokescreen that makes it all OK,” she said. “So charging an expensive restaurant meal to your PAC might look bad to some people. But if you can cloak it as a ‘PAC meeting,’ then that’s the way you frame it.”
LEADERSHIP PACS AS ‘SLUSH FUNDS’
The Federal Election Commission first authorized leadership PACs for members of Congress in the late 1970s. They are considered a valuable tool for senators and representatives who want to raise large sums outside of their own campaigns, to be given to the campaigns of their colleagues and to their political parties and caucuses.
Such political contributions can be important to rising in the congressional ranks.
For example, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., runs Bluegrass PAC. In each of the last few election cycles, Bluegrass PAC has come close to raising and spending $2 million, largely on contributions to McConnell’s fellow Republicans.
And HALPAC does make political donations. This election cycle, for example, it’s given $30,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which supports the campaigns of GOP House members like Rogers. It’s given $24,000 in individual donations to 14 Republican lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington.
But leadership PAC money also can be spent however lawmakers choose, as long as it doesn’t pay for their own campaigns. And in some cases, lawmakers spend less PAC money on political contributions than they do on dining, alcohol, travel, clothing, entertainment and payments to their loved ones.
Critics have urged the FEC — without success — to place spending restrictions on these accounts.
“Leadership PACs are commonly used as slush funds to subsidize officeholders’ lifestyles,” the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign-finance reform advocacy group, wrote to the FEC in 2018.
In its letter, the Campaign Legal Center identified hundreds of thousands of leadership PAC dollars that various lawmakers spent traveling to ski resorts, theme parks, casinos, golf courses and other vacation getaways.
“One leadership PAC spent $10,000 for a cigar club membership,” the group wrote. “Another spent $21,240 explicitly on dues for a Maryland country club.”
CRUISING TO AN EASY RE-ELECTION
Rogers has a history of spending HALPAC money on expenses other than political contributions, such as repeated golf trips over the years to Pebble Beach Resorts on California’s beautiful Monterey Peninsula. The Pebble Beach outing, a regular feature for HALPAC as recently as the 2018 election, has not yet been reported this year.
Rogers doesn’t need that much cash to hang onto his House seat. He has given $110,000 of his own unspent campaign money to the NRCC this election cycle, apart from his $30,000 HALPAC donation.
First elected in 1980 to represent the 5th Congressional District, one of the nation’s poorest, he cruises to an easy re-election every two years. He won 79% of the vote in 2018 (although turnout was so low that 60% of his district’s voters didn’t cast a ballot in his race).
As a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, Rogers helps write the federal budget. Scattered across his district are buildings and programs for which he secured funding, some bearing his name, and federal contractors who owe at least part of their success to Rogers’ intervention.
Many of those federal contractors, such as Outdoor Venture Corp. and Science Applications International Corp., open their checkbooks for Rogers’ political committees, giving him a ready source of cash.
Rogers’ Democratic challenger this year is Matthew Ryan Best of London, a political unknown with no campaign money. Best said this week that he has received $596 in donations from Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue, but he’s giving all of that to area food banks as a matter of principle.
“I think a major issue with our government is lawmakers spend too much time dialing for dollars,” Best said. “Are they telemarketers?”
By contrast, so far in this election, Rogers has reported raising $428,233 through his campaign committee and $279,991 through HALPAC. That’s a lot less than he raised in past elections. As a result of his previous fundraising prowess, Rogers reports sitting on an unspent balance of $869,866 between his two committees.
FUNDRAISING IN COASTAL FLORIDA
According to its campaign finance reports, HALPAC has spent $19,284 so far this election cycle in and around Naples, including hotel, food and event expenses at The Ritz-Carlton Naples and its Tiburón Golf Club; meals at Amore Ristorante, Caffè dell’Amore, Mr. Big Fish, Pinchers and Ridgeway Bar & Grill; catering by Word of Mouth Catering; and cigars from The Smoke Shop and Smokin’ Bull Cigar Room.
Separately, Rogers’ campaign committee paid $551 for cigars at a Naples tobacco store, calling them “supporter gifts.”
If HALPAC’s spending in Naples was meant to be fundraising, then it doesn’t look like the effort has paid off.
Campaign-finance records identify seven HALPAC donors with Naples addresses, including Leonard Lawson, the wealthy and politically influential Kentucky highway contractor who keeps a winter home in Naples. Together, the seven donors had contributed $15,250 to HALPAC as of Aug. 31 — less than the PAC spent in the resort city.
But the location was convenient for the congressman. Hal and Cynthia Rogers, who own homes in Somerset and Arlington, Va., bought a Naples condo on the golf course at the Wilderness Country Club in 2015, land records show.