MIAMI (CBSMiami) - Former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is under federal investigation by the Justice Department for allegedly spending campaign money on personal trips and vacations for her and her family, CBS Miami has learned.
In recent weeks, former members of her staff have been subpoenaed to either provide records or appear before a grand jury regarding tens of thousands of dollars of expenditures by Ros-Lehtinen, including a 2017 trip to Walt Disney World with her children and grandchildren. The investigation is being run by the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
News of the federal investigation has not been previously reported.
Ros-Lehtinen declined to be interviewed for this story.
Her attorney, Jeffrey Weiner, said Ros-Lehtinen is aware of the investigations.
"She and her former staff members and volunteers are cooperating fully with the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice," Weiner said in a statement to CBS Miami. "We are gathering the information requested by the Department of Justice and are confident that, if bookkeeping errors were committed, they were due to negligence, and not willful or intentional misconduct by the former congresswoman or anyone on her staff, or her accountants."
"As my team and I have investigated and studied the facts in this matter," Weiner added, "we have not found any evidence whatsoever of intentional wrongdoing by Ileana or anyone on her behalf."
After announcing on April 30, 2017 that she would not seek re-election in 2018, Ros-Lehtinen transferred more than $177,000 from her re-election campaign account to IRL PAC, a political action committee that she controlled. It is not uncommon for politicians to have PACs to support their political activities. And some of the IRL PAC's spending is political in nature. Under federal law, however, campaign funds – even those funds that are transferred to a political action committee – cannot be spent on what election law describes as "personal use."
A review of IRL PAC expense reports shows a series of questionable expenditures, including nearly $4,000 spent on the family trip to Disney World in December 2017.
Other expenditures include more than $10,000 on rooms at the Lotte New York Palace in New York; nearly $6,000 on rooms and meals at the Ritz-Carlton resort on Amelia Island in northern Florida; and another $28,000 at the W Hotel on South Beach.
On New Year's Eve 2018, just days before she left office, she spent $3,100 at MesaMar, a high-end seafood restaurant in Coral Gables, according to the PAC's expense reports.
Weiner, Ros-Lehtinen's attorney, declined to explain the political or campaign-related purpose of those expenditures.
Ros-Lehtinen's campaign spending was first reported by Noah Pransky on the Florida Politics website in June 2019.
Following that news report, the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, filed a complaint in October against Ros-Lehtinen with the Federal Elections Commission.
The complaint alleges: "There is reason to believe that IRL PAC" violated federal law "by converting contributions for personal use, including a family trip to Disney World and tens of thousands of dollars of expenses at luxury hotels, none of which have any apparent connection to Rep. Ros-Lehtinen's candidacy or duties as an officeholder."
A spokesman at the FEC declined to comment on the status of the complaint.
Since June, however, the FEC has been unable to act because President Trump has kept three seats on the six-member commission open, preventing it from having a quorum to investigate any possible abuses of campaign spending across the country.
Typically, cases before the FEC are resolved administratively, with candidates returning the money and paying a fine. In more serious cases, the FEC can refer the allegations to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.
It is not known if the FEC referred the Ros-Lehtinen investigation to the Justice Department or if federal prosecutors took an interest in the case on their own.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
Weiner said federal prosecutors would have a very high burden to bring a criminal case against Ros-Lehtinen.
"For a campaign or PAC election law violation to be a crime," Weiner said, "there must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the violation or violations were committed `knowingly and willfully.' In other words, the government must be able to prove conclusively that the person to be charged knew that the conduct was intentional and done with an unlawful purpose."
Brendan Fischer, a director at the Campaign Legal Center who filed the FEC complaint against Ros-Lehtinen, agreed there is a high bar on bringing criminal charges, but calls the Justice Department decision to launch an investigation "very significant."
"To open a criminal investigation, the Department of Justice Public Integrity unit presumably had some evidence that these violations were knowing and willful," Fischer told CBS Miami.
In recent years, federal prosecutors have gone after several members of Congress for what prosecutors considered improper campaign spending.
In 2016, Congressman Aaron Schock, a Republican from Illinois, was indicted for using campaign funds to decorate his office in a Downton Abbey-themed motif. Charges were ultimately dismissed after Schock resigned from Congress and agreed to pay a fine and reimburse the funds.
In March, Congressman Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California, was sentenced to eleven months in federal prison after he pled guilty to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds on vacations, theater tickets and to finance an extramarital affair.
Fischer suspects these cases have become more commonplace because of a lack of accountability by the Federal Elections Commission. "Some of this speaks to the FECs general hands-off approach to enforcing campaign finance law," Fischer said. "I think there has been a number of candidates, of both political parties, who have felt comfortable pushing the legal envelope because they expected to get away with it."
Before announcing her retirement, Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, served 30 years in Congress. She was the first woman elected to Congress from Florida; the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress from anywhere in the country, as well as its first Cuban American. Numerous politicians such as Senator Marco Rubio, began their ascent in politics working on her campaigns or as interns in her office.
"Ileana Ros-Lehtinen enjoyed a sterling reputation for honesty and integrity during her 30 years as our congresswoman," Weiner said. "She is an extremely popular and beloved community leader and educator.
"I will do all within my ability as a lawyer to protect and defend Ileana from criminal charges," Weiner continued. "She is innocent, and I intend to convince the prosecutors that no crimes were committed. Once the prosecutors have had the opportunity to listen to our witnesses and consider the information we will provide to them, I am confident that they will do the proper and fair thing, and decline to file charges against Ileana."
News of the Justice Department investigation comes at a time when President Trump has been aggressively courting Cuban American voters.
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