WASHINGTON — Republican senators, including Pete Wilson of California, are circumventing federal election laws and violating an Internal Revenue Service ruling by spending money from a special GOP campaign fund without paying income taxes on it, the citizens' lobby Common Cause charged Tuesday.
Wilson acknowledged that he used $52,400 from the fund, operated by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to pay for such items as office equipment, magazines, Spanish lessons and a joke-writing service. He said he did not report the money to the IRS on the advice of attorneys because it was spent on official Senate business and is not considered personal income.
Paid Out $1.4 Million
The committee has used the multimillion-dollar fund, financed by campaign donations, since 1981 to help defray office expenses of Republican senators. During the 1983-84 reporting period, the committee paid out $1.4 million from the fund to cover the expenses of 55 senators. Wilson received the second-largest amount.
Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer charged that Wilson and other recipients of money from the fund should have paid taxes on it in compliance with a 1980 IRS ruling. He said that at least two other GOP senators, Paula Hawkins of Florida and Chic Hecht of Nevada, admitted that they did not report the money as income to the IRS. No information was available on whether any senators had paid taxes on the funds.
Wertheimer charged that senators receiving money from the GOP committee's special account should abide by a 1980 IRS ruling stating that "excess campaign funds transferred to an officeholder's office account are includable in the gross income of the officeholder." He noted that his interpretation is shared by the Joint Tax Committee of Congress and the Congressional Research Service. An IRS spokesman refused to comment on the issue.
In addition, Wertheimer said that the fund has been used by the committee, created by the GOP senators, to circumvent a law prohibiting party committees from giving more than $17,500 in direct campaign contributions to a Senate candidate. He noted that some senators used the money from the fund to finance campaign-related activities, such as purchasing mailing lists.
Split Opinion on Taxes
David Narsavage, a spokesman for the senatorial committee, conceded that some legal experts think senators should pay taxes on the money under existing IRS rules. But he added that the committee's attorneys do not share that opinion.
"It's an issue of divided opinion," Narsavage said. "There's nothing in the law that says that this is income that should be reported. If we thought we were in violation of the law, I really don't think we would have been operating this fund in the eye of the public for the past five years."
According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Wilson charged the fund for a wide variety of items during 1983-84, including Spanish lessons, photographs, a cellular automobile telephone, travel expenses, a videotape player and subscriptions to a wide variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times and the Comedy Center, a joke-writing newsletter. Much of the money he used was spent on unspecified office equipment.
Wilson's Spanish lessons were singled out by Common Cause as an expenditure that appeared to stretch the definition of job-related expenses. In 1984, the records show, the committee paid $41 in August and $51 in September to Inlingua, a Washington language center where Wilson studied Spanish.
Bill Livingston, Wilson's press secretary, said the senator views the lessons as necessary to allow him to communicate with Spanish-speaking constituents in California. For example, he noted that Wilson was interviewed in Spanish by a Latino television station after the Mexico City earthquake last year.
But Wilson's were by no means the only expenditures criticized by Common Cause. Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.) was criticized, among others, because he charged the campaign committee fund for a $2,800 dinner at one of Washington's most expensive restaurants.
According to Common Cause, the special fund is generally used by senators to pay for expenses that fall into a "gray area" between costs that are covered by campaign funds and those that are paid for out of Senate office funds. Each senator receives up to $1.7 million annually from the federal government to cover routine office expenses.
Common Cause's Wertheimer called on the House and Senate Ethics committees to enforce existing rules prohibiting members of Congress from diverting campaign contributions to personal uses. He cited recent articles in the Nashville Tennessean charging that Rep. Bill Boner (D-Tenn.) used campaign contributions to pay for a luxury car, a pickup truck, a mobile telephone, $5,000 worth of furniture for his Nashville home and a trip to the Far East.
'Rebirth' of Slush Funds
"We are seeing the rebirth of the old-fashioned personal slush fund on Capitol Hill in the guise of the present-day candidate campaign committee," Wertheimer said. "As more and more members build up substantial campaign surpluses, fueled by ever-increasing amounts of (political action committee) contributions, more and more campaign funds are apparently being spent on activities that relate to the personal needs, not the campaign needs, of members."
Wertheimer accused the House and Senate Ethics committees of shielding members from criticism of these practices instead of cracking down on them. Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Ethics Committee, refused to comment on whether the committee is looking into charges against Boner.