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Latest Mooney ethics issues reveal ‘culture’ of abuse of office

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The latest report from the Office of Congressional Ethics regarding alleged misconduct by Rep. Alex Mooney, the second such report in nearly a year, may be few in pages, but the document is densely packed with allegations of misuse of his office.

The House Ethics Committee released the second report from the OCE Monday afternoon, accusing Mooney, R-W.Va., of accepting an all-expenses paid vacation from a campaign contributor and vendor as well as the use of a company house near Capitol Hill for official and campaign work; numerous accounts of using congressional and campaign staff for personal and family errands; and obstructing investigators, lying and doctoring evidence.

A walk through the Rayburn House Office Building on Tuesday found the door closed to Mooney’s congressional office adjacent to the U.S. Capitol. Mooney released a statement Monday through a spokesperson condemning the OCE and denying some of the allegations. Press Secretary Ryan Kelly said Tuesday no additional statements would be forthcoming while the House Ethics Committee continues to review the OCE reports and decides its next steps.

Sources in Mooney’s office who declined to be identified have placed the blame on some of the allegations in the OCE reports on prior staff who no longer work in the office, unintentionally shoddy recordkeeping and the testimony of a disgruntled former staffer. But the second OCE report includes testimony from six former congressional and campaign staff as well as three current staff whose identities were omitted from the report.

According to the report, staff who worked for Mooney were ordered to do everything from book family vacations, watch his children and pets, drive family members, fix vehicles, work on school educational projects for Mooney’s children, fix business issues for Mooney’s wife and more. Employees would sometimes walk into their offices to find Mooney’s dirty laundry on their desks.

Mooney’s staff is at the center of nearly every allegation in the new OCE report, which includes violations of the rules of the U.S. House of Representatives, House ethics rules, and federal law.

ISLAND BREEZES

OCE investigators accused Mooney of accepting a week-long vacation with his wife and children to the Caribbean island of Aruba on behalf of HSP Direct LLC, a direct-mail company the Mooney campaign began using for mailers in 2020. Mooney also was friends of HSP partner and CEO Jamie Hogan for more than 20 years, according to testimony from the company’s legal counsel.

Mooney’s campaign benefited from more than $17,000 in donations from HSP’s political action committee since taking office in 2015, with Hogan and his wife contributing more than $28,000 to Mooney’s campaign coffers since 2016. According to the report, the Mooney campaign spent more than $60,000 with HSP since 2020. A look at Mooney’s April quarterly campaign finance disclosure with the Federal Communication Commission found more than $7,100 spent with HSP between January and March of this year.

According to the report, Mooney told his congressional chief of staff Michael Hough and Katy Cannon, a fundraising consultant, in an email that he would like to consider a PAC event in Aruba in March of 2021. But the vacation event in Aruba was not an event for HSP’s PAC, but a reward for company employees for meeting sales goals. Mooney and his family were the only non-HSP employees on the trip.

Staff in Mooney’s office were ordered to make arrangements for the trip through Former Staffer 2, a congressional scheduler. Former Staffer 2 coordinated between Mooney, his wife Grace and HSP for trip planning, as well as COVID-19 testing, securing travel visas and travel insurance. Former Staffer 1, who held a high-level position in Mooney’s congressional office, confirmed Former Staffer 2’s actions.

“I remember that (Former Staffer 2) was going back and forth … many, many times with details trying to get the COVID test and stuff for (Grace Mooney),” Former Staffer 1 told OCE investigators. “She had to work those type of details. (Rep. Mooney) had her do that by getting — calling places, getting the information from HSP. She was the middle person for that.”

According to an estimate by OCE, the Mooney family’s Aruba trip paid for by HSP cost more than $10,000 and included chartered air travel to the island, transportation to and from the airport, group meals and banquets, poolside cabanas, Jeep tours, and more. Investigators believe the trip likely cost more, as the value of drinks and meals was unknown, though HSP paid more than $92,000 for banquets during the trip.

During the investigation, OCE was told by the legal counsel for HSP that Mooney only reimbursed HSP $1,637.75 for the cost of the flight, though the flight cost more than $3,300.

“(H)ow he determined how much he paid, I think he just put a number out and said, ‘These are flights,’ or whatever, and ‘We’ll pay that,'” Former Staffer 1 told investigators.

Mooney, in a statement through Kelly on Monday night, claimed the entire cost of the trip to Aruba has been reimbursed to HSP, though an exact dollar amount was not given.

“… Congressman Mooney, with the knowledge of the Committee on Ethics, has reimbursed the company for what the Congressman believes to be more than the value of any gift to him,” Kelly said. “There was no improper connection between any gift and any official action by the congressman.”

OCE investigators also uncovered use of a house near Capitol Hill co-owned by Hogan and HSP’s founding partners that Mooney and his family used for official congressional and campaign business and as a venue for events. The report stated Mooney did not cooperate with a review of his use of the HSP house. Investigators allege a connection between Mooney’s use of HSP as a vendor and HSP paying for his Aruba vacation and use of their Capitol Hill house.

“The OCE found … no evidence that Mr. Hogan previously invited Rep. Mooney on similar paid vacations prior to the Aruba trip, despite their alleged 20 years of close friendship,” the report stated. “Instead, it appears it was only after 2020, when Rep. Mooney began paying HSP Direct tens of thousands of dollars for campaign services, that he and his family were invited on such a trip.”

HUMAN RESOURCES

OCE investigators accused Mooney of creating an “office culture in which staff presumed they had no choice but to perform personal errands for Rep. Mooney and his family.”

While some staffers felt comfortable doing personal things for Mooney and his family, investigators found that many felt pressured. But one common thing persists: staff testified that these chores prevented them from doing their actual jobs, and that often they would go uncompensated for their time and their own money.

“I think the understanding is: If you work on the campaign, you also work for the Mooney family,” said Former Staffer 1. “You were at their beck and call for anything, even though you got official salary as well.”

Staff were asked so many times to do personal errands for Mooney, Grace Mooney, and their children and other family members that the line between personal, officials, and campaign work became blurred.

“I guess I just kind of got intertwined in their way of doing things,” said a person identified as a senior employee in a supervisory role. “But I’m in the mindset if (Mooney) wants it done, who am I to question it? He’s my boss. So I always knew that I probably shouldn’t be doing it, but I just did it.”

Tasks included babysitting Mooney’s three children multiple times per week, primarily done by female staff members and sometimes while working out of the Mooney’s home in Charles Town. Staff would chauffeur the children to and from Capitol Hill, the Mooney’s home, and events, sometimes traveling between 60 miles and 70 miles round trip with no compensation for gas or feeding the children.

“I know a couple of times I’ve ended up eating costs just because he bought some things and I put on — on my card and he said ‘Well, just write those off,’ and I never felt comfortable writing them off because they seemed more personal in nature than they were sort of legitimate,” said one current staffer to investigators.

Staff also helped Mooney’s children with educational projects, including using office resources to reach out to state and even Smithsonian museum officials to help Mooney’s children with homework assignments. Mooney used staff to arrange for recreational opportunities for Mooney’s children at the Greenbrier Resort while Mooney enjoyed an Ultimate Fighting Championship event in the casino, asking staff to see “if 17 year olds are allowed into that area?”

Other tasks included buying the family groceries; watching the Mooney family dog; helping Grace Mooney, a physician, with moving her medical license from Maryland to West Virginia and with obtaining a business registration; reaching out to the state Division of Motor Vehicles for a title issue with one of Mooney’s cars; repairs for Mooney’s personal vehicles; and using official staff and office resources for campaign activities.

One task included taking Mooney’s laundry for cleaning, sometimes leaving laundry on the desk of staff members or leaving laundry on the floor with the expectation staff would take care of it.

“If I leave clothes on the floor of my closet … they need to be taken to the laundry,” Mooney told Former Staffer 2 according to investigators.

Current Staffer 3, a financial administrator used by Mooney and seven other House members, advises members on spending practices for their Member Representational Allowance, which can only be used for official and representation expenses. Current Staffer 3 told investigators that Mooney often pushed the line for what is and isn’t an allowable expense.

“… It’s definitely something that he’s repeatedly forgetting,” Current Staffer 3 said when asked by investigators whether Mooney was forgetting or ignoring the line between official and political activity. “Whether he’s choosing to forget or not, I don’t know. I don’t have this problem in my other offices.”

According to investigators, Mooney tried to use MRA funds to pay for a flight to a House Freedom Caucus retreat in Florida in 2021 which is not allowable under House rules. Another trip outside the current 2nd Congressional District in the summer of 2021 to Parkersburg to tour Blennerhassett Island, meet with the leader of Burger King’s franchise organization and do interviews with local media, including The Parkersburg News and Sentinel, was partially paid for with MRA funds.

It was later determined the trip was a campaign trip in anticipation of facing 1st District Congressman David McKinley in the May 2022 Republican primary once state lawmakers combined McKinley and Mooney’s districts into the new northern 2nd District last October. Mooney defeated McKinley during the May 10 primary.

“Current Staffer 3 approved the MRA expenditures because he was told the purpose of the trip was official congressional business,” the report stated. “When that context was explained to Current Staffer 3, he stated his advice would likely have been different …”

In his Monday statement, Mooney made no attempt to deny any of the OCE report’s claims about using staff for personal errands or abusing his use of MRA funds for personal and campaign-related expenses.

STONEWALL

OCE investigators pointed out several times that Mooney was uncooperative in providing testimony or required documents, including weighing the possibility that Mooney allegedly withheld and concealed information, along with allegedly doctoring official calendars.

Witnesses told investigators they believe that entries in Mooney’s calendar were changed, reclassifying a family gathering event to an event with supporters after the OCE’s first investigation of Mooney was completed last summer and released publicly in the fall. OCE sought further information from Mooney due to conflicting accounts by witnesses, but Mooney refused to cooperate.

It was also determined the testimony given by Mooney during the first OCE investigation regarding purchases made with Martin’s grocery store gift cards classified as campaign expenses were likely used for personal uses. The Mooney campaign reported more than $17,000 in gift card expenditures. But some of the gift cards appear to have been used by Mooney for personal grocery purchases, including purchases prior to Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“In considering the totality of the evidence … in conjunction with Rep. Mooney’s refusal to cooperate and answer questions about these concerns, it is likely that Rep. Mooney impeded the OCE’s first investigation by providing false testimony and withholding evidence or making edits to his calendar,” the investigators determined.

Mooney, through his spokesperson, also vehemently denied making false statements and tampering with evidence.

“These allegations are prime examples – but far from the only examples – of the OCE reaching biased conclusions against Congressman Mooney based on exaggerated ‘evidence’ that does not even satisfy the OCE’s low burden of proof,” Kelly said on behalf of Mooney.

Mooney has also spent the last year using campaign funds to pay for legal services while these investigative reports are being reviewed by the House Ethics Committee. Since January, the Mooney campaign has spent $139,298 on legal services through Baltimore-based law firm Wiley Rein LLP, and $5,427 to Georgia-based law firm Chalmers and Adams LLC according to FEC filings.

Another $45,000 was transferred since January from the campaign to the Alex Mooney Legal Defense Fund. The House Ethics Committee approved the creation of the legal expense fund last December, with more than $136,000 transferred to the fund according to documents available only by in-person review at the Legislative Resources Center in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building.

The OCE is an independent, non-partisan agency that investigates allegations of ethical and legal violations involving House members and has no power to compel testimony or documents. It submits its reports to the House Ethics Committee – evenly divided between five Republicans and five Democrats – who can decide to impanel a subcommittee to further investigate OCE allegations and levy fines or other punishments.

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