Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar’s Office Tops In Travel Spending In 2018
Long an advocate for reducing government waste, Rep. Paul Gosar’s congressional office spent the most of any House member last year on official travel.
According to data for calendar year 2018, which was last updated in early January 2019, Gosar’s office spent more on travel than the offices of Guam’s former Rep. Madeleine Bordallo and Northern Mariana Islands Rep. Gregorio Sablan. And his office about doubled the travel expenses of the next-highest member of Arizona’s congressional delegation, Tom O’Halleran, whose district covers more square miles.
Gosar’s office has consistently led all Arizona representatives and, at least since 2016, has ranked near the top among all House members.
Each House member gets an allowance for all office expenses. It’s called the Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA), and covers salaries, equipment, mail, travel, office rental and other costs associated with representing a congressional district. Paul Gosar’s overall office spending last year was within his MRA limit of $1,432,089.
What’s curious is that in 2018 his office spent at least $204,492 altogether on travel: commercial transit, lodging, car rentals, gasoline, meals, and taxis, including flights to and from his rural Arizona district. That was enough to put him in the lead of all members of the House of Representatives.
MRA money can be used for travel expenses related to official duties, but not campaign or personal travel.
KJZZ tried several times to interview Gosar. In the end, a spokesperson sent the following statement:
“Congressman Gosar believes it is vital for both him and his staff to be out and about the large district as often as possible. He has three Arizona staff members that routinely travel the state and the Congressman is constantly on the road. DC staff regularly travel to Arizona and meet with constituents. This is a fundamental part of the job.”
Gosar’s ranking atop the official travel spending list was first discovered by Sophia Brown at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
The House Ethics Committee, the Committee on House Administration, and the House’s Chief Administrative Office all declined requests for on-the-record interviews about MRA rules. The Office of Congressional Ethics didn’t return interview requests.
There’s no evidence Gosar’s office spent the money improperly, but spending reports offer minimal information.
Expense logs published by the House of Representatives do not contain any detail about which flights, which rental cars, and which hotels the money was spent on. Charter flights, for example, are allowed under House of Representatives rules, but the public and media are unable to obtain receipts for flights. Congress is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
“When we come to official travel disclosure reports, as you can tell, they’re not that detailed,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.
Holman worked on the law that added restrictions to privately-funded travel in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal in the early 2000s. At that time, he said they did not think to add similar disclosure requirements for trips taken with office funds.
“I wish we had,” he lamented. “These official travel rules should have been expanded to include full disclosure on an easily-available, online webpage.”
The disclosure that does exist comes in the form of quarterly Statements of Disbursement (SODs) of the House of Representatives. Dollar amounts for lodging, car rental or other expenses are listed, as is the person who got reimbursed.
According to the SODs, however, many of the disbursements go towards paying off expenses on a government charge card, and there is no name attached to those charges on the statements. Members of Congress and staff members alike can use government cards, so ultimately it’s unclear who is using the card to buy what, aside from the fact that purchases fall under categories like “gasoline” or “commercial transportation.”
“Just imagine if that happened in a business. The bookkeepers [and] the accountants and the auditors would be all over you,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a bipartisan good government group.
McGehee, however, said that the rules around MRA spending are actually tighter than those that govern campaign spending and politicians’ leadership PACs.
“If you misspend taxpayer money, you can actually get in trouble,” she said. “Unlike what happens if you spend, you know, your campaign money or your leadership PAC money. So there actually are consequences if you don’t follow the rules.”
One local example of this is Congressman David Schweikert (R-Fountain Hills). The House Ethics Committee is investigating, among other things, whether he improperly reimbursed a staff member with taxpayer money. Schweikert says it was a bookkeeping issue.
Travel Expenses For Arizona Representatives In 2018
NOTE: Further 2018 reimbursements likely to increase totals.
You May Remember
Earlier this year, the website Sludge and then the Arizona Republic reported what seems to be a discrepancy on travel forms Gosar submitted to the House Ethics Committee for a privately-funded trip to London in July 2018.
The agenda for the trip lists a planned dinner on Saturday, July 14 with members of the United Kingdom’s parliament. Gosar dined instead with several far-right European leaders, the news reports say.
The Middle East Forum’s director told the Republic that Gosar met with British politicians on the 14th, and members of Parliament had been invited to meet with him but did not.
Speaking Against Waste
Gosar, a Republican and one of the most conservative members of the House, has sought over the years to ban members of Congress from paying for first class plane tickets with taxpayer money.
He wrote to members of the House Appropriate Committee in 2014 requesting that appropriations bills explicitly forbid money from going to first class travel for lawmakers.
“As with all federal spending, Member's Representational Allowance funds are taxpayer dollars. As such, the use of these finds must be exercised with the utmost efficiency and transparency,” he wrote with two other House members.
Gosar introduced the Coach-Only Airfare for Capitol Hill (COACH) Act in 2015 and co-sponsored a similar measure last year. Both efforts were unsuccessful.
“I think that what we should do is lead by example,” Gosar said on Arizona PBS in 2014. “Not expect everybody else to do it and not us.”
Leading By Example
Gosar’s office hasn’t always had the highest official travel spending.
In his first year in Congress, 2011, his office spent $92,632.49 for official travel expenses. The next year, it spent $159,737.71.
Gosar’s chart-topping $204,492.81 from last year is the highest of all House members. And as his office’s leader, it’s spending over which he has complete control.