9 Investigates: How local members of Congress spend campaign dollars

by: Torie Wells Updated:

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RALEIGH, N.C. —

Channel 9 investigates how local members of Congress spend campaign dollars.  We went through the current campaign cycle and the 2010 campaign cycle. What we found was that family members and candidates themselves were receiving money. And it's all legal.

As we looked at where campaign money was going, familiar names started popping up.

For Rep. Mel Watt's campaign, Jason, his son, is listed as a consultant.

Rep. Patrick McHenry's campaign treasurer is his sister, Catherine Rains McHenry.

"Is there no one more qualified than someone related to you?" asked Chris Fitzsimon, director of NC Policy Watch in Raleigh.

He sees an ethical problem with how some of those funds are spent.

"This is about public service, not feathering your own nest," he said.

We also found that Patrick McHenry loaned his campaign money numerous times over the years. According to FEC filings, his campaign paid him a little more than $18,000 in loan interest expense in 2011.

His press secretary, Ryan Minto sent a statement saying, "In a contested primary runoff that was ultimately won by 85 votes, Patrick essentially spent his life savings because he believed he could make a difference in Congress. As a small business owner, it was cheaper to borrow that money from himself than to get a high interest loan from a bank. The loan, which he took out 8 years ago, was paid off in 2010."

"I think to allow someone to personally profit from loaning themselves money while they voluntarily run for office makes no sense. We need to put an end to it," said Fitzsimon.  He would like to see the law changed.

"It certainly raises eyebrows to some extent," said Mitch Kokai, with the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh.

Kokai agrees this issue deserves attention, but he doesn't feel changing the law is necessary.

"You don't want to take too many steps that get government involved in telling candidates what they can and can not do," he said.

He says that sometimes family could be the best, least-expensive option.

Watt paid his son a consulting fee. He said over the phone that his son is a professional voiceover artist who does his commercials and that $500 is a small price to pay for his talents and travel.

Kokai says he's even OK with candidates charging loan interest because the money would earn some in the bank anyway.

We found voters who see things both ways.  

"If I'm donating money to a campaign, I feel like they know what they are doing with their campaign," said Ryan King, a voter.

"Politics is all about nepotism and cronyism, so I'm not surprised," said Richard Purchell, another voter.

Rep. Sue Myrick's stepdaughter owns Myrick/Gunter Advertising.

We saw several payments from Myrick's campaign to the agency.

A spokesperson for her sent us a statement saying, "Payments to Myrick/Gunter Advertising are aggregate payments that are then used by the company to make major media buys, such as billboards, radio and television advertisements, and other relevant campaign purchases. These are not direct payments to Myrick/Gunter or its owners."

But that is not broken down in the files. Kokai says the Federal Election Commission reporting could be easier to read and available more quickly.

"Then you could have the opponents or government watchdogs or media watchdogs have quicker access to this, to say 'Wait a minute. We see a problem here,' " he said.

And then ask questions, like we did.

Regarding McHenry's sister serving as his campaign's treasurer, his press secretary sent us a statement saying, "Cathy is an accountant by training. As Treasurer for the last nine years, she handles all paperwork and payroll, office bills, and compliance with FEC regulations. She is on the campaign staff and is not compensated by taxpayers in any way."

"You have to play under different rules when you're a public servant, when you're running for public office, you made a decision to try and gain the public's trust," said Fitzsimon.

But he agrees that more transparency is key.

"Sunshine is the best disinfectant for corruption," he said.