Ethics panel alleges Duncan used campaign funds for personal expenses

Local News

The House Ethics Committee released findings on Wednesday from the Office of Congressional Ethics concerning its investigation into alleged violations by Tennessee Congressman Jimmy Duncan.

The committee confirmed in February it was extending a review prompted by a referral in January from the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics.

Previous story: Ethics Committee confirms review of Congressman Jimmy Duncan

The findings note Duncan’s campaign committee and leadership PAC reported campaign expenditures that may not have been for legitimate campaign or political purposes. The documents provided by the House Ethics Committee describe numerous trips and other expenditures involving campaign workers and family members, memberships to clubs, and personal expenses for Duncan’s son.

The Office of Congressional Ethics looked at Federal Election Commission filings from 2008 to the end of 2017, analyzing thousands of pages of credit card, travel and other purchase records and identified instances where they say campaign funds were used for the personal benefit of Duncan’s family and friends.

The findings also state that the campaign committee may have accepted contributions from people who worked for Duncan’s congressional office at the time, which would be against the law.

More online: Read all the findings

Duncan’s response to the allegations is also included with the findings. Duncan and his attorneys say the alleged expenses were for legitimate campaign or political purposes and the OCE broke its own rules by investigating conduct that only involved members of the campaign and the PAC, but not Duncan himself; came to prohibited prejudicial conclusions and did not give Duncan a chance to respond to some of the allegations.

WATE 6 On Your Side’s political analyst George Korda believed the committee is trying to send a message to the next congressman. He said if the committee can prove beyond doubt laws have been violated, than it has an obligation to act.

“But it’s not even close to where anything is right now. Right now, it’s all ‘might have’, ‘could have’, ‘may have,'” said Korda.

Duncan’s response

Duncan’s response says he was unaware of the employees who gave money to his campaign, but because he is not running for reelection, the issue will not reoccur. 

Duncan’s attorneys also say the OCE’s findings contain facts that are irrelevant and unnecessary and contain personal information that has not been redacted.

Duncan himself issued a statement on Wednesday saying, “I have never personally taken one penny out of my campaign account for personal or family expenses.”

He also stated that things like barbecues at his house were political events, not personal ones.

“While I have run TV, radio, and newspaper ads over the years, I decided a long time ago that it was nicer and more helpful to me politically to take people to eat and spend time with them at meals or host people at breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, or political meetings of all types,” he said.

Full statement:

I am certainly not perfect, but in my 46-year career as a lawyer, Judge, and Congressman, my ethics were never questioned until this last July. Then someone who was afraid I was going to run for re-election filed an ethics complaint against me, obviously designed to hurt me politically. This was really all about politics and truthfully not about ethics at all. 

However, when a complaint is filed, an investigation becomes mandatory, and I am not allowed to know who filed the complaint. Then a staffer from the Office of Congressional Ethics went over the thousands of expenditures, large and small, made by my campaign over the last 10 years or so, even questioning things I had paid for personally out of my own pocket. 

I have never personally taken one penny out of my campaign account for personal or family expenses. One former member bought a $3,000 suit out of his campaign fund to wear during his speech to the Democratic National Convention. As far as I know, he was never questioned about that. Some members have purchased new cars (or leased them) through their campaigns. My wife and I have worn out several vehicles going all over the District and have cheated ourselves out of many thousands of dollars we could have taken for mileage. 

The staffer for the OCE prepared a report on my campaign spending that is so false and misleading that it is almost ludicrous. She has made a ridiculous accusation that I “may” have converted a very large amount of money to my personal use when practically all of it was spent buying meals for campaign workers, supporters, contributors, and constituents, many of whom I did not even know.

Over my 30 years in Congress, my campaign has paid for thousands of meals. My wife and I have paid out of our own pockets for personal groceries and family meals. But many thousands have come to our barbeques. And I have hosted thousands of people from my District at luncheons, dinners, receptions, and political events of all types. 

However, because this OCE staffer was so determined to make something bad out of something good, and to create a scandal where there was none, she decided that because some of my family and friends were at many of these events, they somehow became personal rather than political. 

While I have run TV, radio, and newspaper ads over the years, I decided a long time ago that it was nicer and more helpful to me politically to take people to eat and spend time with them at meals or host people at breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, or political meetings of all types. 

I have been blessed with a very close family. My wife and children worked in all my campaigns with no pay except for an occasional meal at a political meeting or reception. However, with the rise of the Tea Party and their very strong opposition to anyone who had been in office for a long time, I knew I would be in a tough campaign in 2014. Also, because I had won all my elections by very big margins, it was hard to get people excited about my campaigns and I had to rely more and more on family and very close friends. 

Thus, in mid-2013, I asked my son John to go to work fulltime managing my campaign. Several hundred Members of Congress, past and present, have paid family members from campaign funds. It is perfectly legal and ethical to do so, and after questioning many people, even the biased OCE staffer realized that John had done almost everything in my campaigns in 2014 and 2016 and in representing me throughout the District since and was actually underpaid for all he had done. 

I paid John less than half of what many federal level campaign managers have received, and he has done far more than almost any of them. He has done the big things like polling, making speeches, choosing advertising, answering campaign calls, representing me at all types of functions, but also work that some big wheeler would not do like pounding in yard sings, delivering campaign materials, working in our water booths, managing the coliseum barbecue, helping out at our golf tournaments, and even going for me to funerals. He also attended many civic and charitable functions. 

I am pleased that the OCE staffer who was so determined to find something wrong did not find that my payments to John were improper or unethical in any way. When this was made clear, the OCE staffer was forced to go in other directions to justify all the time she had spent on this investigation. 

Most of my staff members have never worked in any of my campaigns, and I have never asked them to do so. In fact, we have bent over backwards to make sure that no campaign work has been done in any of my Congressional offices. In 1996, one of my opponents, before anyone knew he was running, came to my Washington office pretending to be a supporter asking for campaign materials, obviously hoping to trick us into doing something wrong. Scott Fischer, who is still with me, told him we didn’t do anything like that in our offices. 

Staff members are allowed to work in campaigns on their own time if they wish to do so. In going over all our campaign spending, there were four times staffers made purchases for which they were reimbursed at the time or shortly thereafter. These were for chicken nuggets for an election night party at a Knoxville hotel; a gift for the Speaker of the House when he came to a Knoxville reception for me; face-painting for children at one of our barbecues; and a lunch for the Jefferson County Republican Women. 

I did not ask my staffers to make these purchases and they did so voluntarily. Since they were quickly reimbursed, I saw nothing wrong about it. However, I have now been told technically, the money should have been given to them in advance, so I have reimbursed my campaign for these expenditures. 
The OCE report also questions some political receptions for women hosted by my wife at the Club LeConte, a weekend trip to the Greenbrier for those who had done the most in my 2014 campaign, and a weekend at the 2017 Presidential Inauguration. 

About once a year, rarely twice a year, I hosted groups at the Club LeConte. These were groups for which I wanted to do something special. They included lunches for the eighth-grade graduating classes from Greenback and Rural Vale, the Senior class from Washburn, 50 African American ninth graders and their chaperones, the Blount County Republican Women, the Knox County Republican Vice Chairs, a reception in honor of an LMU Vice President, and a 90th birthday party for a longtime supporter and her friends. 

The receptions hosted by wife were accurately and honestly labeled as showers, but they just as accurately and honestly could have been reported on our FEC reports as women’s political receptions because they were. These were for the wives and daughters of people who had worked in and/or contributed to my campaigns. Some of these young women had been interns for me. I suggested doing these at Club LeConte because it is a very nice place and I wanted to get more for the money were paying for our membership. 

But the main reason I wanted this done was because Republicans were getting a lower percentage of the women’s vote and I thought this would help me politically.

The women who were invited were up to the honorees, and many were people neither my wife nor I knew beforehand. I know these events helped me more politically than lunches the OCE staffer did not question such as the ones for 8th grade graduates or the African American 6th graders. 

While I have not done so, many members have hosted birthday parties for themselves or have attended high dollar athletic or entertainment events where they get a few people to contribute so the member can go for free. Many people have said, whether we like it or not, everything a member of the House does is political since we have to run every other year and really have to campaign all the time. 

Hundreds of members, past and present, have hosted political events at most of the leading resorts around the Country. Most of these have been fundraisers, but I have never done this. However, I have spoken several times for other members at places like the Homestead, the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, and the Inn at Pebble Beach. These members have had their family members at all I have been to. 

After my very difficult 2014 campaign, I took five couples and some of my family who had done the most in my campaign, for a weekend at the Greenbrier. The Hotel had a special winter rate, and I thought this would be a cheaper and nicer way to say thank you for all that each of them, including my family, had done in the campaign. I would have been justified in writing each of them a check for several thousand for all they had done, but no law says campaign workers can only be paid in money. All the expenditures at the Greenbrier were listed in my public FEC reports which anyone can see. As recently as just a few weeks ago, most Republicans took family members to a political meeting at the Greenbrier. I did not go, preferring to come home to my District to be more available to my constituents and to see my family. 

As for the Inauguration, I asked my family to come help me host the hundreds of constituents who were coming from our District. We were providing breakfast, a luncheon, and snack food throughout the day for people from East Tennessee. People all over the Country like to meet the family of Members of Congress, and I knew it would help me politically if my family, of whom I am very proud, was there. 

In addition, my family members were among the very few who had worked in my 2016 campaign, and I thought it was more than fair to reward them in a very small way for doing so. And we did even this on the cheap. My family stayed two nights in one of the cheapest motels in the Washington area, and I made all of them drive because the plane fares were too expensive to Washington that weekend. 

Even though I am convinced that it was perfectly legal and ethical to pay the expenses of my family for both the Greenbrier and Inauguration weekends and a few other very minor expenses for all they had done in my campaigns, I have reimbursed my campaign for every expense that appeared in the slightest way to be personal. 

Relying on my family and a few very close friends to work on my campaigns, rather than Washington or campaign professionals, enabled me to run some of the cheapest, least expensive congressional campaigns in this Country. 

I know that some people believe everyone in politics is bad. But I can assure everyone that every penny spent by my campaign was done to help me politically, and that is what campaign funds are for. No taxpayer funds were involved in any way.   

Duncan was first elected to Congress in a 1988 special election to replace his father, John Duncan Sr., who had cancer and died in June of that year. The Republican represents the Knoxville area and has announced he will not run for reelection.

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