Investigator: Ohio politicians living large in D.C.

7:17 PM, Apr 29, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON D.C. -- When Rep. Jim Renacci huddled together with a group of retired football players during a May 2012 press conference, he spoke of helping the NFL Hall of Fame acquire priceless football artifacts through a proposed bill that wouldn't cost taxpayers a dime.

Yet later that day, Renacci quietly charged taxpayers a total $792 for food and beverages, according to congressional spending records.

Renacci has long railed against overspending by Washington lawmakers, arguing in a debate speech last year that it increases the government debt that "our children and grandchildren" will have to repay.

But Renacci's spokesman Shawn Ryan refused to say what the $792 tab was for, leaving taxpayers to wonder whether they picked up the bill for Hall of Famers Warren Moon, Bruce Smith, Ozzie Newsome and other gridiron greats.     

At a time when Congress is asking all of us to tighten our belts, Channel 3 News wanted to find out what Ohio's delegation in Washington D.C. is spending taxpayer money on.

It turns out -- plenty.

Each representative gets $174,000 annual salary as well as a generous pension. They also get to spend an average of $1.35 million from their Member Representational Allowance, or MRA, on official expenses, including staff, travel, mail and district office rent.  

The MRA covers other perks as well.

For instance, Ohio's congressional delegation spent a total of $32,874 last year on food  for them and their guests -- Renacci spent the most at $4,278 -- and another $21,091 on bottled water, a Channel 3 News investigation found.

That's right, $21,000 on bottled water.

The station also found that House Majority Speaker John Boehner spent at least $2,200 last November on coffee service alone.

"Where is he getting his coffee from?" said Stephen Davis, of Cleveland. "That's completely absurd."  

Dr.  John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron, says taxpayers are often outraged with congressional spending in their district offices.

"It's a common complaint," he said. "Is that really the best use of taxpayer money, because we're facing a situation where we have budget deficits, we're going to have tax raises and important programs may be cut."

The majority of congressional discretionary spending went for staff salaries, according to an analysis of the House of Representatives' Statement of Disbursement.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich's office cut more than $1.1 million in paychecks last year, the most of any Ohio representative.

But it was Rep. Steve LaTourette, who retired at the end of the term, who gave his staff the biggest end-of-the year bonuses: a total of $150,779.

Channel 3 News found that Ohio's representatives spent a total of $588,000 on official travel for themselves for items like airline tickets, hotels, meals, mileage, tolls and other "subsistence" items.

That doesn't include spending on travel for staff.

Rep. Michael Turner spent the most last year, racking up $57,887, while Renacci was ranked second with $44,925.

The station also found that LaTourette spent $502 a month to lease a BMW and Rep. Bill Johnson billed taxpayers $370 a month on a Ford lease.

Channel 3 News requested monthly statements from each member for their government-issued credit cards, which would provide details about where the member stayed, for how long, and where they dined.

Every member refused, saying they were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Shawn Ryan, Renacci's spokesman, pointed out that he returned $210,000 of his office budget to the U.S. Treasury Department in 2011 and $162,000 in 2012.

He also said the spending met the guidelines set out by the House Ethics Committee and the House Committee on Administration.

Yet when asked to detain how Renacci spent the rest of the money, Ryan refused.

"You get to ask the questions. I get to respond," Ryan wrote, in an email. "That's how this works. If I reply and you don't like the answer, that's unfortunate."

Green says that Congress wrote the Freedom of Information Act specifically to exempt themselves from being forced to release any records they don't want to.

"That often bugs a lot of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans and independents," Green said. "Most Americans when asked about these questions want fuller disclosure and more transparency."


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