Watchdog files complaint accusing Trump's chief of staff Mark Meadows of campaign finance crimes

The complaint draws on Salon's exclusive reporting from last week about the possible violations

Published October 30, 2020 10:35PM (EDT)

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows (Getty/Alex Wong)
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows (Getty/Alex Wong)

The government ethics watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint on Friday accusing White House chief of staff Mark Meadows of campaign finance crimes for allegedly spending thousands of dollars in campaign funds on personal expenses, including clubs, gourmet cupcakes, a jeweler in Washington and lodging at the president's hotel.

The complaint, which draws from Salon's exclusive reporting last week, urges the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to administer any and all appropriate fines and to take further action, "including, but not limited to, referring this case to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution."

In the document, CREW isolates suspicious transactions among nearly $75,000 in campaign expenditures after Meadows announced his retirement from Congress last December, payments which extended well after his official resignation when he joined the White House on March 30. 

"One of the clearest rules in campaign finance is you can't spend your campaign's finances on yourself," Noah Bookbinder, director of CREW, said in a statement announcing the complaint. "That is what it looks like happened here, and it must be thoroughly investigated."

Across the course of 2020, Meadows' campaign committee, Meadows for Congress, continued to rack up expenses, including more than $6,500 in spending at numerous clubs and restaurants, including the Capitol Hill Club, the Trump International Hotel and its in-house restaurant BLT Prime. Other charges included grocery stores and Lavender Moon cupcakery in Washington.

As Salon first reported, the complaint also shows that the Meadows campaign dropped $2,650 at Ann Hand jewelry in Washington on the day that Meadows officially resigned from Congress. It also paid out more than  $5,800 to a campaign aide for "field representative" mileage months after the former North Carolina representative announced he would no longer be campaigning — timing which CREW flags as suspicious.

At the time of the mileage charges, across a few weeks in February, Meadows' hand-picked successor and friend of his wife Lynda Bennett had been conducting fundraising events in Meadows' western North Carolina district. Salon on Friday reported that Meadows appears to have used taxpayer-backed congressional allowance funds to reimburse a congressional aide for travel "mileage" accrued across the exact days of one of Bennett's fundraising swings with Debbie Meadows.

According to campaign finance law, funds are improperly converted to personal use "if the contribution or amount is used to fulfill any commitment, obligation or expense of a person that would exist irrespective of the candidate's election campaign or individual's duties as a holder of federal office."

Despite the spending, Meadows for Congress does not appear to have been actively fundraising during the same period. The campaign reported a total of $786.00 in contributions from Jan. 1 to March 31, 2020, and $0 in contributions between April 1 and June 30, 2020, after which Meadows and McMichael converted the entity to the Freedom First PAC.

The alignment of expenditures, the complaint says, makes them "unlikely to be legitimate campaign expenses" and raises "serious questions about whether Meadows and Meadows for Congress violated legal prohibitions against converting campaign funds for personal use."

Meadows, who drew fire recently for having hosted a "lavish wedding" in Atlanta in May in violations of state coronavirus restrictions, continued to report questionable expenses after the campaign converted to Freedom First PAC on July 2. Payments included more than $1,300 in food and beverage spending, including a $1,000 charge at Capitol Hill Club — a popular haunt for Republican officeholders — and nearly $400 at Trump's Washington Hotel. The PAC raised $0 from July 2 through October 14, 2020, again making the committee's spending unlikely to be legitimate campaign expenses, the complaint says.

"Accordingly," the CREW filing says, "an FEC investigation of Meadows, Meadows for Congress, Freedom First PAC and McMichael is in order."

The day Meadows formally tendered his resignation from Congress, March 30, 2020, his campaign reported a $2,650 expenditure on "printed materials" from Ann Hand jewelry, which does not advertise stationery or other "printed materials" on its website, as Salon reported. The closest item would be American Eagle Silk Scarves in three different colors, which go for $350.

An Ann Hand representative told Salon on Friday that the store does not sell anything which could be characterized as "printed materials."

The complaint says that this payment "strongly suggests personal use." Debbie Meadows has been photographed multiple times in Ann Hand jewelry, including at the Republican National Convention in August.

Some of the spending appears to intersect with Bennett's campaign, which the Meadows campaign gave a maximum donation to in March, weeks before he stepped down. On June 23, the day of Bennett's district primary — and nearly three months after Meadows had resigned — his campaign paid aide Henry Mitchell an additional $2,300 for "Management Consulting."

Mitchell was also the individual who received the $5,800 in "field mileage" that winter. It is not clear what those costs may entail, and the complaint alleges they appear to constitute unlawful spending.

Seven days later, after Bennett lost the primary, Meadows for Congress spent $600 at Safeway grocers.

The complaint itemizes $5,577.50 spent on food and beverage from January through March, including $84 to Lavender Moon Cupcakery on Feb. 12, and $1,583.12 to the Capitol Hill Club on Jan. 13, Jan. 17, Feb. 11 and March 13.

Other food and beverage charges include a $500 payment to Trump International Hotel in early March, as well as multiple expenditures to its in-house BLT Prime restaurant totaling $581.40. 

Despite these expenses in this period, the complaint notes that Meadows for Congress does not appear to have been actively fundraising, as Salon reported.

After converting the campaign to Freedom First PAC on July 2, Meadows reported more than $1,300 on "PAC food/beverage," including $1,000 at the Capitol Hill Club on July 21 and $69 at Lavender Moon Cupcakery. The PAC spent an additional $400 on lodging at Trump's Washington hotel in September.

FEC rules give the agency the authority to judge whether expenditures constitute personal use, including meal and travel expenses.

On Friday, Salon furthered its reporting on Meadows' spending, detailing possible use of federal taxpayer resources to support his wife's friend's campaign.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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Campaign Finance Donald Trump Elections Fec Furthering Mark Meadows Republicans