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Tuesday, November 29, 2016 10:02 pm

Stutzman: Ethics report is 'absurd'

Brian Francisco | The Journal Gazette

The U.S. House Ethics Committee said Tuesday it will review further an allegation that Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, might have used campaign funds for personal expenses.

The committee said in a news release that it will "gather additional information necessary to complete its review" of the case and will have no further comment until the review is finished.

With the House tentatively scheduled to adjourn for the year Dec. 9 and Stutzman leaving office Jan. 2, the Ethics Committee faces a time crunch for its review and any penalties or rebukes that might result if Stutzman were found to have violated House rules. The committee cannot sanction former House members.

The panel’s Republican chairman and ranking Democrat did release the report and findings of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which sought the review in August. The OCE concluded "there is substantial reason to believe that campaign funds were used to pay for a personal family trip to California" in possible violation of federal law and House rules.

The funds included more than $2,000 for airfare, most later reimbursed by Stutzman, and more than $1,100 for vehicle rental.

The release of the OCE report was the first time the Ethics Committee has specified the reason that Stutzman is under review. The committee announced Oct. 17 that it would "extend the matter regarding" Stutzman without saying why it was reviewing him.

"The OCE report released today is flawed and completely wrong," Stutzman said Tuesday in a statement. "As our submission to House Ethics shows, OCE interjected itself into this process by taking news articles attacking me in my Senate campaign, then spending substantial taxpayer money deciding how many fundraising meetings on a fundraising trip are ‘enough’ to suit the OCE staff. This is truly a bizarre situation."

The third-term congressman from Howe called the OCE report "demonstrably absurd."

The California trip took place in August 2015 when he was running for a U.S. Senate seat. According to the OCE report, Stutzman attended three campaign meetings over a two-day period in Los Angeles. But over the next 31/2 days, he, his wife and their two sons "participated in activities of a personal nature, including tours of Capitol Records, the Reagan Library, and Reagan Ranch," the report stated.

The library and ranch are part of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs in Simi Valley, California.

The report noted that Stutzman repaid his campaign $1,518 for air-travel expenses of his wife and children after media inquires about the trip. The Associated Press first reported on April 20 that Stutzman’s Senate campaign had paid for travel expenses for what his wife wrote on social media was a family vacation to California. The OCE report said it received a written request for a review of the trip on April 22.

The Ethics Committee also Tuesday released Stutzman’s Sept. 29 response to the OCE. In it, his lawyer called the report "erroneous" and urged the committee to dismiss the allegation.

"Of the six days of travel, not even one day was a Stutzman family only day. There was something related to the Senate campaign every day of the trip. Every day," wrote Stutzman attorney Cleta Mitchell, a partner in the Washington law firm Foley and Lardner.

Mitchell wrote, "Simply because Rep. Stutzman chose to keep his family with him on the west cost fundraising trip and because he wanted to accommodate an important media figure in his state by spending time with Indiana voters during the California trip does not convert this trip to a ‘vacation’ or a ‘personal’ use of campaign funds."

Stutzman, his wife, Christy, and his chief of staff, John Hammond, told the OCE that his trip overlapped a Southern California tour for Indiana residents organized by Pat Miller, a commentator for Fort Wayne radio station WOWO. The OCE report stated that Stutzman’s trip appeared to be "built around the radio host’s tour."

Ethics Committee leaders released a transcript of OCE interviews with Stutzman and others in which he said he was in campaign mode virtually throughout the California visit, regardless of where he was or who he was with, including at a dinner for Medal of Honor recipients and during the tour of Capitol Records.

"You’re always – when you’re running for the U.S. Senate, I mean, if you are going to be a serious candidate, you are just always campaigning. You’re always trying to develop relationships and develop support," Stutzman said in the interview.

In reference to joining Miller’s group for the Reagan Library visit and dinner on the Queen Mary, a retired ocean liner, Stutzman said, "To me, they were all campaign-related because I was with constituents, with voters, and I was again trying to broaden our network and which we were successful on all those."

Stutzman’s campaign manager at the time, Brendon DelToro, told the OCE interviewer, "Travel was booked and paid for with the campaign that I felt like should have been covered personally" by Stutzman.

DelToro said about the Queen Mary dinner, "I received an email with an invoice for this trip either weeks or several weeks after the trip. I said the campaign should not pay for this with campaign money."

Stutzman ended up paying for the dinner and library tour with personal funds.

The Ethics Committee consists of five Republicans, including Rep. Susan Brooks, R-5th, and five Democrats.

Stutzman, a House member since late 2010, lost the Republican nomination for an open Senate seat to Rep. Todd Young, R-9th. Young defeated Democrat Evan Bayh, a former senator and former governor, in the general election to replace retiring Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind.

Former state Sen. Jim Banks, a Republican from Columbia City, will replace Stutzman in the House.

bfrancisco@jg.net