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Trendy Fashion Buys Reimbursed as "Office Supplies" to RNC Finance Officials

For one Republican National Committee official, a spin through a trendy clothing boutique racked up hundreds in "office supplies," all billed to party donors. And there's more.
 
 
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At the Republican National Committee, the term "office supplies" seems to have taken on a whole new meaning. If you take its recent filings with the Federal Election Commission at face value, the RNC, it seems, requires thousands of dollars worth of pricey clothing and more than a splash of booze to run its office.

Listed on the report in the category of "office supplies" are purchases from a New England winery and a Capitol Hill liquor store, as well as more than $3,800 from a Florida clothing store. The category of "meals" also seems to extend to the sartorial, with a $450 purchase from a high-end Manhattan boutique -- one that has no restaurant or take-out shop on the premises -- falling into that category, as listed on the RNC's reports to the FEC. That purchase, as well as one for more than $500 from the Florida clothing store, are attributed to RNC Deputy Finance Director Debbie LeHardy, who, according to the report, was reimbursed for them.

LeHardy also received reimbursement for more than $2,800 in "tips" between December 2009 and February 2010, according to the reports.

Even before news broke this week that the Republican National Committee spent nearly $2,000 at a bondage-themed Hollywood strip bar, RNC Chairman Michael Steele had been sharply criticized for extravagant spending. AlterNet's review of RNC campaign finance records suggests a pattern of reporting irregularities within an institutional culture of over-the-top extravagance.

In February, as the RNC's finance chiefs gathered in Boca Grande, Florida, for their Finance Leadership Meeting -- the meeting at which the RNC's "fear" strategy for donors was revealed in a telling PowerPoint presentation -- the RNC made purchases totaling $3817 at Fugate's. On its report, the RNC labels the purchase as "office supplies," but Fugate's general manager Nancy Blank says her store doesn't sell office supplies. Fugate's sells men's and women's clothing and accessories, Blank told AlterNet. "We're a specialty department store," she said.

Of that total LeHardy, the RNC deputy finance director, received direct reimbursement for $513. The rest was a separate purchase made the next day, and billed to an RNC American Express account. The name of the AmEx cardholder is not listed on the FEC report. My calls for comment to the RNC and to LeHardy were not returned as of press time.

Records also show that LeHardy received reimbursement for $282 spent at Boca Grande Outfitters, which bills itself as "the area's most complete saltwater fly fishing and light tackle outfitter." The report designates the reimbursement for "meals." Aaron Sutcliffe, a clerk at BGO, said the store doesn't sell food.

In December, RNC reimbursed LeHardy for $453 worth of "meals" from Henri Bendel, a posh boutique on New York's Fifth Avenue. Bendel's is an upscale source for costume jewelery, handbags and make-up. The store bills itself as a "Girls' Playground for trendsetting young women from around the world."

"[W]e do not have a restaurant in the store so I don't know how she would have spent $450 on meals," spokesperson Jodi Mellman wrote in an e-mail.

LeHardy was also reimbursed for over $1852 in "tips" for unspecified services obtained during December, and an additional $966 for the February meeting in Florida.

The RNC told the FEC that it spent $982 of its donors' money on "office supplies" from the Boyden Valley Winery last December. "We do not sell office supplies; we are a legal winery operating since 1991 in Cambridge, Vermont," co-owner Linda Boyden told AlterNet.

Between December and February, the RNC bought over $700 worth of so-called "office supplies" from Congressional Liquors, a booze and sandwich shop on Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Hill.

Campaign finance experts told AlterNet that political parties have broad latitude to decide for themselves what a legitimate political expense, as long as the outlays are plausibly related to a campaign. Office supplies are a pretty broad category, but in the case of the winery expenditure, the RNC appears to be pushing the limit.

"Liquor is not what a reasonable person would understand an office supply," according to Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center. She noted that there are some exceptions: For example, booze for an office Christmas party might legitimately be counted as an office supply.

The FEC Web site states that when an individual is being reimbursed for "office supplies," the party is expected to describe what sort of office supply was purchased if it's not apparent by virtue of the type of vendor from which the purchase was made.

It's not clear why the RNC would be buying "girlish" accessories or fishing outfits, whether as office supplies or not. The RNC has gotten into trouble for political spending on fashion before. During the 2008 presidential campaign, a national scandal erupted when the RNC was found to have spent over $150,000 on a wardrobe for vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

A certain degree of decadence is to be expected in an RNC expense report, considering that the committee specializes in raising money from very rich donors, who expect to be wooed in the style to which they are accustomed. And the RNC surely meets those expectations.

The committee's FEC reports are a litany of luxury hotels and elegant restaurants. While ordinary Americans struggle to make ends meet, RNC staffers are regularly bedding down at Spago Beverly Hills, the Ritz Carlton, the Four Seasons, and the Venetian in Las Vegas. Someone even ran up $5884 hotel bill across the pond at the Dorchester Hotel in London last November. Records show that staffers routinely drop hundreds of dollars at Charlie Palmer's Steak House, the Old Ebbitt Grill, and other premium eateries. However, the RNC's finance reports hint at deeper problem -- most notably the thousands of dollars in expenditures AlterNet found that appear to be misstated in campaign finance records.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and photographer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her reporting has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The New York Press, In These Times and other publications. She was the recipient of a 2009 Project Censored Award. She blogs at Focal Point, a Big Think blog. She also writes Morning Coffee, a daily international news bulletin produced by the UN Foundation's UN Dispatch blog. As a blogger for The Media Consortium, Lindsay synthesizes and promotes the best health-care coverage in TMC each week.
 
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