MIAMI (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department is investigating a former Florida congresswoman accused of spending at least $50,000 in campaign money on vacations and restaurant and luxury hotel bills.
The federal department's Public Integrity Section is looking into the expenditures by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who retired after three decades representing the Miami area in Congress. They include a 2017 trip to Walt Disney World with her children and grandchildren, rooms at a Ritz-Carlton resort and a New Year's Eve meal at a high-end seafood restaurant.
Her attorney, Jeffrey Weiner, gave a statement to WFOR-TV, which first reported the Justice investigation on Wednesday, that Ros-Lehtinen and former staff members and volunteers have been cooperating with the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department.
In a statement to the Miami Herald, the attorney added that they are turning over campaign finance and other records subpoenaed by the Justice Department.
“We ... 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," the news outlets quoted Weiner as saying.
Ros-Lehtinen, declined to seek reelection in 2018. A Cuban-American, she was Florida's first woman representative, and the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress. Her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, was an acting U.S. Attorney for South Florida and a law professor.
Following her retirement announcement in April 2017, she transferred more than $177,000 from her reelection campaign account to a political action committee she controlled, WFOR-TV reported. Federal law prohibits campaign funds, including those transferred to PACs, from being spent on personal use.
But expense reports from her PAC show she spent nearly $4,000 on a Disney World trip in December 2017, a combined $44,000 on rooms at hotels in New York and Florida, as well as more than $3,000 at a Miami restaurant in 2018.
Weiner declined to explain the campaign-related purpose of the expenditures but said his team has not “found any evidence whatsoever of intentional wrongdoing” by the former congresswoman or her staff. He said he's confident prosecutors will ultimately decline to file charges against the politician.
The Justice Department and Ros-Lehtinen herself declined to comment to the news outlets.
WFOR reported that Ros-Lehtinen’s spending was first reported by Noah Pransky on the Florida Politics website in June 2019, and that the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog, filed a complaint in October against Ros-Lehtinen with the Federal Elections Commission.
President Trump has kept three seats open on the six-member commission, denying it the quorum needed to investigate any possible abuses of campaign spending.
Brendan Fischer, a director at the Campaign Legal Center who filed the FEC complaint, called the Justice Department move “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 the station.