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U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher spent nearly $30,000 in campaign funds to buy a crossover SUV last fall. Now his opponents in the 9th Congressional District race are trying to get their own mileage out of it.
The expense appeared in a fourth quarter 2009 report Boucher filed with the Federal Election Commission, along with several vehicle-related maintenance costs in the months since then.
Boucher said he bought the 2010 Ford Edge in November at Bostic Ford Sales — a dealership in the 9th District — with a mix of campaign funds and personal money in such a way that he can use it for official, campaign and limited personal business without spending taxpayer money.
Federal law and congressional rules allow for the use of campaign funds to purchase vehicles —so long as they’re used for campaign purposes, including congressional duties in most situations — but the purchase received a flurry of attention last week after blogger Ben Tribbett wrote about it on his “Not Larry Sabato” site.
Republican Morgan Griffith, who’s running against Boucher, issued a news release noting the amount of campaign funding spent on the vehicle is just under the $34,506 mean income of district residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“At a time when people are struggling to pay their bills, no congressman should be purchasing a new car with campaign contributions,” Griffith said. “Rick Boucher should be able to purchase a car himself with his $174,000 congressional salary.”
Independent candidate Jeremiah Heaton took up another issue. Because the vehicle’s cost was paid largely from Boucher’s campaign fund, it was bought largely by contributions from special interests, Heaton said. He criticized Griffith for accepting special interest money as well.
“I wish both candidates would turn special interest money back and run their campaigns like I have,” Heaton said. “I think you’d see a whole different kind of race.”
Boucher said the $29,352 listed in the report represented three-quarters of the vehicle’s cost, and that he paid the rest with his personal money.
He took a similar approach when buying a Jeep Cherokee in 2000, only with the percentages swapped: He paid for three-quarters and used campaign money for the rest.
That arrangement, Boucher said, is an alternative to a common practice in which members of Congress lease a vehicle through the House of Representatives.
Boucher said his method allows him to use his two vehicles for official, campaign and some personal uses without costing taxpayers any money.
“This arrangement ... is the best way I can think to make sure that taxpayer money is not spent in operation of the vehicle and whatever personal use I have is on my dime,” Boucher said.
He said his personal use of both vehicles is limited: “My life revolves around my job. The vast majority of my travel is for campaign purposes or for official purposes.” Boucher and his staffers have put about 150,000 miles on the Jeep and about 20,000 on the Ford, he said.
Jan Baran, head of Wiley Rein LLP, an election law firm in Washington, said the Federal Election Commission “allows candidates to use campaign funds to purchase vehicles and service them to the extent they’re used for campaign purposes.
“They can’t be used for personal transportation unrelated to the campaign. You can use them for congressional duties as permitted under House rules as well as FEC rules,” he said.
However, the Griffith and Heaton campaigns are hoping voters view the purchase differently than the election commission.