WASHINGTON — A Republican congressman from Tennessee may have misspent more than $100,000 from his campaign committee and leadership political action committee on personal expenses over the past decade, according to an independent ethics office that asked the House Ethics Committee to review the matter.
The conclusions from the Office of Congressional Ethics on Rep. John Duncan Jr. were released Wednesday by the House Ethics Committee.
The office said about one-quarter of the questionable spending came in the form of travel, including a three-night trip to West Virginia's Greenbrier resort by Duncan, his family and campaign supporters who were personal friends. The Office of Congressional Ethics found that the 2014 trip, which cost $15,091, was primarily recreational.
The office investigates complaints from the public, but only the House Ethics Committee has the power to punish a lawmaker for wrongdoing.
Duncan, 70, has already announced that he will not seek re-election. He is in his 16th term representing a Knoxville-based congressional district that is considered a safe Republican seat. Duncan said the initial complaint filed against him was designed to deter him from seeking re-election.
"This was really all about politics and truthfully not about ethics at all," Duncan said.
Lawyers representing Duncan disputed the OCE's findings and said the expenses in question were for "bona fide campaign or political purposes." Duncan's lawyers called on the Ethics Committee to dismiss the matter.
"He did not knowingly act in a way that was illegal, inappropriate or questionable in the context of commonly understood ethical behavior," Duncan's lawyers told the committee.
The House Ethics Committee generally must release the OCE's recommendations within 90 days. That deadline was Wednesday, with the committee noting that the release of the OCE's report or its own continued review does not itself indicate any violations of House rules or federal law occurred.
In addition to citing the Greenbrier trip, the OCE cited private club dues, wedding and baby showers, personal cellphones and family meals as questionable.
Using campaign funds for personal expenses is prohibited under federal election law.
The report noted that the campaign spent about $6,500 in travel expenses for three of Duncan's adult children, another relative and a campaign contributor during President Donald Trump's inauguration. Duncan told the OCE that he invited his family members to Washington to help him entertain the constituents he expected to attend.
The ethics office concluded there was "substantial reason to believe" Duncan's campaign committee and leadership PAC paid expenses "not attributable to bona fide campaign or political purposes."
In a statement, Duncan addressed many of the questioned expenses one by one. Regarding the Greenbrier trip, Duncan said he took five couples and some of his family who had done most of the work on his 2014 re-election campaign to the resort.
"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," Duncan said. "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."
Duncan said he is convinced it was perfectly legal and ethical to cover their expense. Even so, he said, "I have reimbursed my campaign for every expense that appeared in the slightest way to be personal."
Other expenses cited by the OCE included more than $27,000 for tickets to sporting events and concerts, including season tickets for the Washington Redskins games, and nearly $24,000 on membership dues and private events held at a Knoxville social club called Club LeConte.
Duncan said he hosted groups at Club LeConte because he wanted to do something special for them. The groups included students from local schools and their chaperones, as well as local Republican groups. He said receptions hosted by his wife at the club were accurately labeled as showers, but they could have just as accurately been reported as women's political receptions.