News & Politics

RNC Finance Officials Fired Over Boozy 'Office Supply' Expenses and Lavish Spending

Last month, we told you about RNC Deputy Finance Director Debbie LeHardy's lavish spending on the RNC's dime. It only took Michael Steele a month to fire her.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele demanded the resignations of his two top finance officials on Friday after a series of revelations regarding the questionable expense reports and lavish spending revealed last month by AlterNet and other media outlets. Finance chair Rob Bickhart and his deputy Debbie LeHardy were sent packing ahead of next week's meeting of GOP state finance chairs.

Steele is clearly hoping that these high-level dismissals will restore confidence in his leadership, which has slipped even further since the revelations of the committee's excessive spending. On Steele's watch, the RNC has lost its fundraising advantage relative to the Democratic National Committee.

LeHardy, AlterNet reported on April 2, received expense reimbursements for purchases made at high-end clothing stores -- purchases categorized on RNC reports to the Federal Election Commission as meals and office supplies.

According to a report of an internal RNC investigation leaked to the Washington Times, employees were allowed to forge Bickhart's initials on expense claims. The report also confirms AlterNet's reporting about the questionable expense claims: "The report says several RNC Finance Department employees have been forging Mr. Bickhart's signature for reimbursement for the purchase of clothing, wine and entertainment expenses, including some that were labeled as office supplies," wrote the Washington Times' Ralph Z. Hallow. "The report also said widespread employee abuse of RNC-provided American Express cards prompted a recommendation at the end of last year that the cards be yanked from all employees and officers except for Mr. Steele and his chief administrative officer, Boyd Rutherford," Hallow wrote.

The RNC didn't get around to yanking the cards until April 12, 10 days after AlterNet reported that someone had charged over $3,000 worth of "office supplies" at Fugate's, a specialty department store in Boca Grande, Florida, with an RNC American Express card. This purchase was suspicious because, according to the store's general manager, Fugate's sells only clothing and accessories. Debbie LeHardy was also reimbursed for a separate $513 "office supply" purchase at Fugate's made the day before. In December, LeHardy was reimbursed for $453 worth of "meals" from Henri Bendel, a trendy fashion boutique on Fifth Avenue.

The RNC's laissez-faire approach to its own financial regulation made national headlines on March 29 when the Daily Caller revealed that the RNC had shelled out $1,946 for a trip to Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed nightclub specializing in simulated lesbian sex shows. The Voyeur outing was reportedly reimbursed with a forged signature.

AlterNet reviewed the RNC's financial disclosures and found a pattern of questionable expenditures within a culture of rampant institutional excess. Finance reports showed the RNC splurging on steak, sushi, five-star hotels, limos and other luxuries -- and those were just the expenditures admitted upfront. AlterNet also found thousands of dollars worth of improbable expense reports: $982 worth of "office supplies" from the Boyden Valley Winery in Cambridge, Vermont and over $700 worth of "office supplies" from Capitol Liquors over a three-month period. LeHardy also received reimbursement for more than $2,800 in "tips" between December 2009 and February 2010.

Raw Story revealed that the RNC struck a legally questionable fundraising deal with the Republican Party of Michigan in late 2009. In an apparent bid to circumvent the $10,000 individual limit on donations, the Michigan GOP agreed to raise money on behalf of the RNC and immediately turn the money over to the national party. Michigan state law allows unlimited campaign contributions from individuals.

Steele's lax fiscal discipline, coupled with his penchant for embarrassing ad libs, have earned him the enmity of many influential Republicans. It's unclear whether his attempts to clean house will restore confidence in his leadership.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist in Brooklyn, NY. Her reporting has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The New York Press, In These Times and other publications.
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