U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman on Thursday defended his decision to have his Senate campaign pay more than $2,000 for a six-day trip to California last summer that his wife described on social media as a family vacation.
But an itinerary of the trip released by his campaign as well as a radio interview Stutzman gave Thursday left a number of questions unanswered—and raised new ones—about the West Coast visit and wider spending on travel by the tea party favorite.
Federal Election Commission guidelines forbid using campaign funds for personal expenses. Stutzman reimbursed the campaign for his family's portion of the trip last week after The Associated Press began questioning him about it, his campaign director says.
The California visit represents just a small part of over $300,000 in flights, vehicle charges, meals and hotel stays Stutzman's campaign fund has spent since the tea party-backed Republican went to Washington in 2010 on a pledge to oppose special interests, an AP review found. That's roughly three times more than Rep. Todd Young, his GOP rival in the May 3 primary, who joined the House about the same time.
Stutzman is locked in a primary battle with Young for the Republican nomination to fill an open U.S. Senate seat that could be important in the November elections, when Democrats hope to win a Senate majority.
On Thursday, Stutzman's campaign pointed out that the FEC once fined Young for campaign finance violations.
The FEC found in 2012 that Young received more than $100,000 in contributions from "prohibited" donors, exceeded campaign finance limits or were not reported properly. Young was fined $8,670. His campaign declined comment Thursday on the FEC's finding against them.
"He's the only one who's been found guilty of wrongdoing by the FEC," Stutzman campaign manager Josh Kelley said.
Stutzman's campaign has repeatedly said the California trip was for political purposes and that his family joined Stutzman at campaign-related events. The itinerary released Thursday deletes the names of those he met with and locations of many events. It does not explain their political purpose, and shows his wife and children attending only one of the events listed.
Stutzman told WOWO radio in Fort Wayne on Thursday that personal considerations were involved in his decision to bring family with him.
"I want to keep my family with me as much as possible," he told the station. "That's part of the reason why we decided to do the personal trip for Christy and the boys and me on the campaign. It was during the summer break for the boys and we decided, hey, if there is a way to stay together and do this trip that way I'm not away from my family."
Stutzman's campaign did not respond to the AP's request to interview the congressman.
Over the course of a week, the AP repeatedly asked the campaign to explain the California trip and Stutzman's other spending, including his use of congressional and campaign funds to reimburse himself for mileage driven on a personal vehicle.
The campaign never answered directly and never announced that it had belatedly reimbursed the campaign fund for the costs of the family's trip until after the AP published a review of Stutzman's campaign fund usage on Wednesday.
A Facebook page at the time of the California trip belonging to Stutzman's wife called the trip a "family vacation" and touted a visit to the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, California. The Facebook pictures were removed from public view several days after the AP first asked about the trip.
Michael Toner, who was chairman of the FEC under President George W. Bush, told the AP that family vacations can't be charged to a campaign account and that the candidate must pay for personal expenses, even if the trip includes political activities. He said reimbursing the campaign "doesn't completely resolve the situation."
Stutzman released a statement to the media Thursday saying he has always been "fully transparent with Hoosiers." He said all "personal family time" on the California trip was paid for out of his own pocket.
The 3-1/2-page itinerary detailed the congressman's events on four of the six days of the trip, not including a weekend in the middle. It detailed the family's drive from their hometown of Howe in northeast Indiana to the Detroit airport and then flying to Los Angeles. It listed several hotels and restaurants visited for meetings and meals, but deleted all names of people the congressman met with.
"We just didn't want to put that information on there," Kelley said, citing "privacy concerns."
Kelley said the Hilton expense was incurred in Indianapolis the night before the California trip. But did not explain who used the room.
In the Thursday interview, Stutzman told WOWO radio that the campaign had consulted with the FEC on the trip spending, and that the FEC had "cleared everything." His campaign could not say when Stutzman consulted the FEC or whom he spoke with.
The FEC shows no record of Stutzman seeking a formal opinion. Often when a campaign wants FEC approval on the use of campaign funds, a written opinion is requested.
Among other AP questions Stutzman's campaign has declined to answer is whether the mileage he charged his congressional and campaign accounts was largely for in-state trips or travel to and from Washington and the details of his purchasing a car with campaign funds.