Golf outings at an exclusive country club. A catered suite at a Dallas Cowboys game. Swanky ski resort getaways in the mountains of Utah. Life is good for Congressman Pete Sessions.
As the chair of the House Rules Committee, Sessions is Congress’ gatekeeper — the man who controls if and when legislation is considered on the House floor. And he’s used his position, aided by an under-the-radar political action committee (PAC), to finance a pampered life among fellow elites.
A new report released this week by Issue One and the Campaign Legal Center, campaign-finance reform groups based in Washington, D.C., explores how leadership PACs — special pots of money meant to help other politicians and build influence — have become lawmakers’ “preferred ticket to luxurious living.”
Leadership PACs are an obscure fundraising tool ostensibly used to support other candidates directly, or to subsidize a lawmaker’s travel while campaigning for other candidates. In other words, they can cover some peripheral expenses a lawmaker’s campaign account can’t. But with next to no spending restrictions and little oversight, politicians are increasingly using the money as a personal slush fund for extravagant flourishes and expensive events. In fact, less than half of the $160 million that leadership PACs spent in the 2016 cycle — about $74 million — actually went toward other federal candidates or political committees.
Sessions is spotlighted in the report for using his creatively named leadership PAC, People for Enterprise Trade and Economic Growth (PETE) PAC, to finance expensive golf outings. But a closer look at PAC records shows that he’s also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at some of the most luxurious places in the country while he wines and dines corporate donors.
Sessions’ PAC hasn’t given more than 50 percent of its funding to other candidates or PACs since 2013 and has instead spent more and more of its funds on courting donors, according to the report. For instance, in the 2013-14 cycle, PETE PAC spent about 45 percent of its money — $303,000 — on political contributions and about 50 percent on fundraising expenses. For 2015-2016, the PAC spent 49.8 percent – $214,100 — on contributions to other candidates.
“The way you raise funds is to make donors feel comfortable and give them an experience, which is fine, but the problem is that a comparably small percentage of the funds raised for leadership PACs are going to other candidates,” said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform for the Campaign Legal Center. “It gives the appearance that you’re holding fundraisers at a high-end steakhouse to bankroll the fundraiser you’re holding at a Cowboys game.”
Caroline Boothe, Sessions’ chief of staff, told the Observer that the “facts have been twisted” in the report and that “he’s not living high on the hog at all.” When asked why PETE PAC is spending so much on fundraising expenses, Boothe said, “You have to spend money to raise money.”
Sessions is rewarded each election cycle, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars through PAC checks from every corner of corporate America: Koch Industries, banking giant JP Morgan Chase, accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, defense contractor Lockheed Martin, tobacco companies like Altria and R.J. Reynolds and a long list of high-powered industry associations.
Ultimately, Sessions plows a huge chunk of his leadership PAC money into putting on a show for his friends in high places, who in turn write him checks to do just that. Rinse and repeat. Welcome to the life of power and politics in Washington.
The report highlights how in January 2017, PETE PAC cut a check to Caves Valley Golf Club for $21,240, a payment that was described in federal campaign finance reports as for “membership for P. Sessions.”
Dues at the Baltimore-area country club, which is one of the most exclusive in the nation and counts Michael Jordan and Michael Bloomberg among its members, are reportedly $20,000 a year, not counting the $100,000 in initiation fees. Politicians are prohibited from using their traditional campaign funds on country clubs. However, they’re technically allowed to pay them with leadership PAC funds, creating a loophole.
On Tuesday, two days before the new report was scheduled to come out, PETE PAC filed an amendment to its February 2017 FEC report changing the description of the $21,240 payment from “membership for P. Sessions” to “golf event for PAC fundraising event, not for individual candidate.”
Boothe categorically denied that the congressman had used his leadership PAC to pay for personal membership dues at Caves Valley, calling it a “clerical error.” Boothe says that Sessions doesn’t play golf and that he doesn’t have a personal membership at any country club.
“This was for an annual PAC event he does each year,” Boothe said. In other years, PETE PAC has labeled payments of a similar amount to Caves Valley, like in 2018, as for a “golf event for PAC fundraising event; not for individual candidate.”
Caves Valley is a private club and does not release information about who is or isn’t a member, but an employee told the Observer that nonmembers can host events at the club so long as a member is in attendance.
Sessions has hosted PETE PAC events there since as far back as 2011. A fundraiser invite shows that Sessions hosted a fundraiser with “dinner and golf” on September 11 and 12 of that year, with requested contributions of $5,000 for PACs and $1,500 for individuals.
However, hanging out at one of the most exclusive golf clubs in the country is hardly Sessions’ only indulgence.
Since 2013, his leadership PAC has also shelled out nearly a quarter-million on swanky ski resort getaways for donors, according to numbers tabulated by the Campaign Legal Center. Specifically, he’s spent $225,640 at the ritzy St. Regis hotel in Deer Valley, one of the premier ski resorts in the country. In the 2017-2018 cycle alone, he’s already spent more than $78,000 on lodging and events at St. Regis.
These types of lavish ski vacations at the St. Regis have become a favored fundraising tactic for the GOP elite — including fellow Texas Congressman and Financial Services Committee Chair Jeb Hensarling — and their attaché of big corporate donors.
Soon after PETE PAC paid about $15,000 to St. Regis in late February 2017, for “room rental, catering fees, & PAC event charges for PAC event,” corporate PAC checks started rolling in. Capital One, the National Pawnbrokers Association, the insurance company Unum Group and T-Mobile all gave money. None of the companies responded to questions about whether representatives attended the event in Deer Valley.
In 2014, he racked up a $5,319 tab for an event at a chic steakhouse in New York City that serves $17 martinis and $98 porterhouses. In 2017, he dropped $24,622 for a catered suite at a Dallas Cowboys football game. In 2015, PETE PAC spent $2,149 on “thermal neck gaiters” to be given away as swag at a fundraising event.
The Federal Election Commission first permitted members of Congress to create PACs specifically to contribute money to colleagues’ campaigns in the late 1970s. Over the next couple decades they became indispensable tools for ambitious members who wanted leadership positions to curry favor with their colleagues.
The leadership PAC game was perfected by Texas Congressman Tom Delay, who plied colleagues with $2 million in contributions before the 1994 midterms as part of his campaign to become House majority whip. Today, 94 senators and about two-thirds of House members have a leadership PAC.
Heading into the 2018 midterms, Sessions has handed out about $85,000 to help vulnerable Republicans around the country.
In the meantime, he’s become quite vulnerable himself. While Sessions has been relatively safe in his Dallas seat since first taking office in 2003, Hillary Clinton won his district in 2016. He is facing a strong challenge for re-election in 2018 from Dallas lawyer and former Obama administration official Colin Allred.
Despite his influence-buying, elbow-rubbing leadership PAC expenses, Sessions was outraised by Allred in the latest fundraising quarter.