Right-Wing Reps. Spent Thousands Of Taxpayer Dollars On 2009 Rally Disguised As Press Conference

June 20, 2011 4:24 pm ET — Alan Pyke

Rep. Steve King

Paul Singer reports this morning that four Republicans familiar to regular Political Correction readers spent a total of 13,630 taxpayer dollars on the sound system used at a November 5, 2009, anti-health care reform rally. From the Roll Call story:

On Nov. 5, 2009, at the behest of Rep. Michele Bachmann, thousands of tea party activists descended on the Capitol to vent their rage over the health care overhaul bill pending before Congress.

The assembled activists chanted, "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!" and waved signs opposing a government takeover of health care - but they may not have known that the same government was paying for the event.

According to House expense reports, Bachmann and three conservative GOP colleagues - Reps. Tom Price (Ga.), Steve King (Iowa) and Todd Akin (Mo.) - each paid $3,407.50 that day, a total of $13,630, to a sound and stage company called National Events, apparently for the sound system used at the rally.

The money came from the Members' taxpayer-funded office accounts, despite House rules prohibiting the use of these funds for political activities. Bachmann's office insists the expense was a proper use of official funds.

While right-wing Reps. Bachmann, King, Akin and Price seem confident they have not committed an ethics violation, the primary defense offered by Bachmann's office is hardly convincing:

Bachmann billed the event as a "press conference," which can be funded from official accounts. But no questions were taken from the press and, unlike most press conferences, it opened with a prayer, the national anthem and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Bachmann's track record of bombastic, misleading statements about government spending make questions about possible misuse of taxpayer funds particularly thorny for the 2012 hopeful. Melanie Sloan, head of ethics watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told Roll Call that CREW didn't know of these expenditures at the time, and that they constitute "an improper political expenditure" in her view.

For his part, King is quoted dismissing the taxpayer funds question because the rally has "already been through ethics." But the Office of Congressional Ethics' statistics on preliminary investigations in late 2009 don't support that. While CREW did call for an investigation at the time, their press release alleged misuse of official websites but did not mention the members' taxpayer-funded spending accounts.

Furthermore, Mike Allen of Politico reported the morning of the rally on an email from a Republican Study Committee staffer showing that these arch-conservative members were aware of an ethical grey area and that they were instructed to avoid calling the event a "rally" even as they designed a rally-like before "a good size crowd" opposing health care reform:

We hope to have as many members as possible for a strong visual. There will be press and cameras just in front of the stage, and beyond them will be a good size crowd gathered on the Southwest lawn of the Capitol grounds. The event will begin with a prayer and the national anthem. ... Please know that this is a 'press event,' 'press conference,' or 'House Call on Washington' but not a 'rally' or 'protest.'

King's and Bachmann's offices have not responded to a request for further comment from Political Correction.