Days after schools in his district began shutting down due to the coronavirus and 1,000 of his constituents had been ordered to quarantine, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) took a trip to Florida where he spent nearly $6,000 of PAC funds on food, travel, and lodging at Hutchinson Shores Resort and Spa, a luxurious seaside hotel in Jensen Beach.
The trip, which took place on March 6 and was paid for by the representative’s leadership PAC (ELEPAC), was to attend a campaign fundraiser, a spokesperson for Engel’s campaign confirmed to Sludge.
Engel’s congressional district includes parts of the Bronx and New York City suburbs like New Rochelle, which was the hottest cluster in the country after the first case there was identified on March 2. By March 10, part of New Rochelle was placed in a mandatory containment zone applying to facilities including schools and places of worship, and large gathering places were shut down.
“While Engel hopped on a plane to Florida, the people he was elected to represent were stuck grounded at the epicenter of the pandemic,” said McKenzie Wilson, a campaign spokesperson for Jamaal Bowman, who is one of several Democrats running against Engel in the June 23 primary.
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Rooms at Hutchinson Shores Resort and Spa cost as much as $350 during the peak February-March season. Its chic “Drift” restaurant serves blue crab crusted grouper for $35 and a center cut filet for $39. Engel also spent money at the Stuart Boathouse Restaurant and Clover Park, the spring training home of the New York Mets, during the trip.
The Florida trip was not the only time Engel was absent from the district as it faced one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country. While most members of Congress returned to their districts as the coronavirus pandemic hit, Engel has been holed up his Potomac, Maryland home since at least late March, according to a report from The Atlantic.
During the roughly two month period the representative was in Maryland, his campaign made misleading statements that implied he was in his district. “Congressman Engel will be joining” other officials for a face mask giveaway in Mount Vernon, New York, read a tweet posted by the congressman’s campaign, which has now been deleted. When pressed by The Atlantic, Engel admitted that he did not, in fact, attend the event. “I was not there, no,” he said.
Engel’s campaign told Sludge that the representative returned to his district after the Florida trip.
Leadership PACs like ELEPAC are supposed to be used for representatives to help fund other federal candidates. However, so far this election cycle all of ELEPAC’s expenditures have been for payments at hotels, restaurants, and baseball parks, or for fundraising consulting and software fees. In 2018, ELEPAC made donations of $1,000 to several House Democrats, including Rep. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), Donna Shalala (Fla.), and Chris Pappas (N.H.).
ELEPAC’s donors in the current election cycle include the PACs of defense contractors Raytheon ($10,000), Lockheed Martin ($7,500), Honeywell ($5,000) and Northrop Grumman ($2,500). As chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel has jurisdiction over war powers and arms exports, among other matters that impact the defense industry.
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It’s not uncommon for members of Congress to use the bulk of their leadership PAC funds for fundraising at attractive locations like beach resorts. A 2018 report by the Campaign Legal Center and Issue One found that in the 2016 election cycle less than half of the money spent by congressional leadership PACs went to contributions to politicians and political committees, their intended purpose, with the bulk of the funds going towards travel and events.
Since its creation in 2017, just 29% of the total amount of money spent by ELEPAC has been for campaign contributions, according to Sludge’s analysis of FEC records.
In its report, Campaign Legal Center and Issue One explain how leadership PACs that only spend a small portion of their money on contributions can be viewed as “slush funds to subsidize officeholder luxury lifestyles.”
“Because many leadership PACs contribute proportionally small amounts to other political committees, many officeholders are seemingly raising money for leadership PACs to perpetuate a never-ending fundraising cycle,” the report’s authors state. “Is a ‘fundraising’ trip to a Caribbean resort justifiable if the money raised is used to fund a politician’s next ‘fundraising’ event at a luxury hotel in Las Vegas? Surely, most constituents would say not.”
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