US House Ethics Committee reviewing Mooney, campaign expenses

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The U.S. House of Representatives Ethics Committee is reviewing a report into the campaign of Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., which notes “substantial reason to believe” Mooney used funds for personal and nonpolitical purposes.

The committee released House Office of Congressional Ethics reports regarding Mooney and three other lawmakers on Thursday. The Office of Congressional Ethics board voted 6-0 in July in support of a further review into Mooney, his campaign and more than $40,000 in expenses.

The board is an independent body made up of private citizens and is responsible for reviewing misconduct allegations. The House Ethics Committee — a 10-member body split evenly between political parties — reviews the board reports. The committee can recommend sanctions against lawmakers like censure, fines and expulsion.

The office in March began a preliminary review followed by a second-phase review in April. It reviewed spending by the Alex Mooney for Congress campaign from 2017 to this year, in which office staff took notice of multiple uses of campaign funds, including fast food and travel purchases.

If Mooney — who began his fourth congressional term in January — used campaign funds for personal use, he may have violated House rules, ethics guidelines and federal law.

Mooney cooperated with the investigation, as did an unidentified employee with Mooney’s congressional office and an unnamed campaign finance consultant for Mooney’s campaign effort.

The board noted the campaign spent thousands of dollars at fast food restaurants near his residence in Charles Town and a district office. Members cited Federal Election Commission filings showing a pattern of “day-to-day meal expenditures.”

U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va. (File)

Mooney explained visits to pick up food would involve speaking with residents of his district.

“So if you — let’s say you go to Chick-fil-A and you charge that to the campaign, the justification for that, being that there are constituents at the Chick-fil-A that you spoke to?” the office’s counsel asked Mooney in May.

“Yes,” Mooney responded. “Yeah, I was meeting with constituents.”

The board also noticed travel to two West Virginia locations that “appear to involve some level of personal use.”

Mooney and his family took a trip in December 2018 to Canaan Valley Resort and Conference Center. The resort is not in Mooney’s congressional district, but rather the 1st District.

“It was more of a site visit is what I intended,” Mooney told the office’s counsel.

“So visiting employees and visiting those who work in the area. That was my intention.”

The board noted there were no other planned stops for the multi-day visit, and none of Mooney’s campaign staff was present.

Mooney reimbursed his campaign $2,445.22 for the trip in April following a counsel recommendation.

A second trip in May 2020 — while coronavirus restrictions were in place — involved Mooney and at least one of his daughters; the party stayed at the Smoke Hole Caverns and Log Cabin Resort near the Monongahela National Forest. The one-night stay cost $189.28.

Mooney described the hotel stay as part of a site visit, stating he hiked Seneca Rocks for the first time during this stop and met people at the national forest. Mooney’s office had also arranged a tour with ranger staff.

“You’re asking a lot of questions about why I do stop and I understand, but it’s my job to be out and about meeting people,” Mooney said in May.

An FEC report shows a $302.10 expenditure at Smoke Hole Outfitters in Grant County. Mooney said the expense was for a staff fishing trip during an official district tour, but there is no evidence that staff members were present.

While Mooney did visit a Hardy County business and Moorefield, the board said the trip appears to be “primarily personal in nature, or at best mixed travel, incorporating both travel for personal enjoyment with his daughters and some incidental official or campaign work along the way.”

The office additionally noted expenditures that are likely permissible, including yearly all-staff meetings at resorts, a shed at Mooney’s home for storing campaign materials, and car repairs for a vehicle used exclusively for campaign activities.

“In sum, while some of the expenditures the OCE reviewed were found to be legitimate campaign expenditures, the evidence supports the conclusion that Rep. Mooney has and continues to impermissibly charge day-to-day meals to the campaign, and has, in at least two instances, allowed his campaign to pay for trips that are primarily personal in nature,” the report says.

In a review of FEC reports, the office noted 45 unitemized reimbursements totaling $22,865.05 made to Mooney between Jan. 24, 2017 and Dec. 29, 2020. The board said the issue likely stems from poor record keeping. The office can confirm Mooney has refunded $12,139.23 to the campaign and provided documentation regarding $8,461.11, leaving $2,264.71 outstanding.

“The OCE notes that merely providing the required transaction detail for the $8,461.11 of previously unitemized expenditures does not mean that those underlying expenditures were in fact permissible,” the report states.

The office was also alarmed about $17,250 in gift card purchases at the Roman Catholic Parish of St. James the Greater and St. Zita’s Cupboard in Charles Town. According to Mooney, the parish — his church — offers the gift cards, which were used for campaign expenditures.

“Rep. Mooney stated that he chose this method of campaign spending because his church received some portion of the gift card purchase, approximately two to five percent of the value of the gift card,” the board said.

Such spending, according to the report, is likely a violation of FEC regulations as it conceals the campaign’s purchases.

“Combining the unitemized reimbursements to Rep. Mooney and the expenditures obscured through gift card purchases, Rep. Mooney’s campaign has failed to disclose underlying transactions for at least $40,115.05 of campaign spending since 2017,” the board added. “And there is reason to believe that the disclosure failure has had the effect, whether intended or not, of concealing thousands of dollars of personal use.”

In a statement, Mooney said the allegations are “politically motivated” and lack merit, adding he will cooperate with the House committee to resolve any remaining issues.

“Like President Trump and many other conservative leaders, I will continue to fight through the sea of slanted information and politically motivated leaks that have marred my right to a confidential examination of the facts,” he added.

Mooney downplayed the inquiry during Monday’s “MetroNews Talkline,” in which he argued the expenses were for legitimate purposes and the original coverage by CQ Roll Call was an attack on him.

“I think they come after people like me because I’m effective. I fight for conservative values, I like to talk about the issues, I’ve been fighting for the issues, and then people target you,” he said. “I’ve not been perfect. If there are any mistakes, I’ll fix them. But I don’t think that’s an issue.”

Gov. Jim Justice on Friday approved the new congressional map for West Virginia, which shrinks the number of districts from three to two because of population changes since the 2010 census. Mooney has already announced his intention to run for the new 2nd Congressional District, which is the northern half of West Virginia. He will run in next year’s primary against Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., a Wheeling native in the middle of his sixth congressional term.

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