Campaign finance

Investigation Requested Into Congressman's Luxury Travel Following NBCLX Report

Watchdog wants Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, who spent over $100,000 on high-end “fundraising” travel since 2019, investigated, along with Democrats Seth Moulton and Gwen Moore

Washington watchdogs have asked for an official ethics investigation into three members of Congress, including Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), following a report detailing questionable campaign spending on high-end travel, meals, and fundraising overhead. 

NBCLX reported how dozens of members of Congress were using leadership PACs to subsidize luxury travel and dining, exploiting a loophole in campaign finance law that allows candidates to spend their donors’ dollars limitlessly, as long as they claim it was related to legitimate political or fundraising events.  

On Tuesday, nonpartisan watchdog Campaign Legal Center (CLC) requested the Office of Congressional Ethics investigate whether Kelly, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), and Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) violated House rules by improperly converting campaign funds to personal use.

Kelly’s PAC, according to its own disclosures spent more than $100,000 on five-star beach and ski resorts since 2019, with only 22% of its total spending going to the PAC’s intended purpose - cutting donations to other members of Congress.  His PAC told the Federal Elections Commission the spending was related to fundraising trips, but records show that little-to-no money was raised for the committee.

When asked by NBCLX about the spending, the congressman laughed and walked away.

Moulton and Moore also directed little of their Leadership PAC spending toward other candidates - 8% and 12% of their total spending, respectively - according to a report by CLC and another Washington watchdog group, Issue One.

Moulton’s campaign told NBCLX the PAC’s public disclosures don’t paint a true representation of all the money Moulton has raised, while Moore’s campaign previously explained the expenses as simply the cost of hosting fundraisers.

Election law strictly prohibits using political funds for personal use, prompting Campaign Legal Center to write in its complaint to the Office of Congressional Ethics, “members of Congress are clearly prohibited by House rules from using leadership PACs as personal slush funds.”

“When elected officials use campaign contributions to enrich themselves,” the complaint reads, “they undermine the public’s trust in their elected officials and the campaign finance system. House rules require (these) members to verify that leadership PAC expenses are legitimate campaign expenses.”

CLC specifically cites the $77,717.42 that Kelly disclosed spending at the St. Regis Deer Valley in Park City from 2019 to 2020, including $15,946.87 for unspecified purposes.  He also spent tens of thousands on what appears to be other high-end travel, including to the Sea Island Resort in Georgia, The Breakers resort in Florida, and several different hotels in Las Vegas.

Neither Kelly’s campaign nor his office responded to requests for comment.

The watchdog complaints also cite Moore’s use of more than $90,000 of donors’ dollars on transportation, lodging, meals and event tickets, including $32,000 in meals/catering and $5,000 on meal-delivery services like Uber Eats and Grubhub.

“The law is clear that the mere fact that a member’s travel may be partly for campaign-related purposes does not give that member carte blanche to use leadership PAC funds on personal activities during such travel,” CLC wrote.

CLC also asked for an investigation into Moulton’s use of funds from his Serve America PAC that went toward upscale restaurants and hotels that “appear to be vacations.”

“The CLC is wrong,” Moulton said in a statement to NBCLX, refuting that any expenditures were for anything other than political operations.  “When Serve America spends money, it is being spent on helping Democrats win and nothing else.  Every trip, every hotel room, every event that is included in this report is directly connected to Serve America’s work raising money or supporting candidates. I’m proud of the work the organization does, and all of that work is done with integrity…I look forward to setting the record straight.”

Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at noah.pransky@nbcuni.com or on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.