The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) is zeroing in on a trip Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) took to Aruba with his family after the independent watchdog discovered that the congressman may have accepted the trip for free or at a price below market value.
In a report made public on Monday, the OCE said campaign vendor HSP Direct, LLC paid at least $10,803.65 for Mooney’s family vacation to Aruba, including travel, lodging, meals, amenities, entertainment and activities.
The watchdog also said it looked into Mooney’s use of a house on Capitol Hill that is associated with HSP Direct. The group said the congressman may have utilized the house for free lodging, free work and event space.
“Documents and witness testimony strongly support the conclusion that Rep. Mooney violated House gift rules and federal law when he allowed HSP Direct to pay for a portion of his family’s travel to Aruba and nearly all their lodging, meals, drinks, and amenities while staying at the Ritz-Carlton, Aruba. Additionally, Rep. Mooney’s free use of the HSP-associated house likely implicates the gift rule and federal law,” the OCE report reads.
House rules prohibit lawmakers from knowingly accepting gifts, and federal law places restrictions on members of Congress receiving them.
HSP Direct, which operates direct mail fundraising, has worked with Mooney’s campaign since at least Jan. 2, 2020 and has received more than $60,000 in payments from the campaign since that date, according to the OCE.
The company and its top figures have also contributed at least $17,750 to Mooney’s campaign through a PAC since 2015. HSP Direct CEO Jamie Hogan and his wife alone have funneled at least $28,100 to the campaign since 2016.
The OCE, citing statements from the company’s counsel, said Mooney and Hogan have been friends for at least 20 years in addition to having a political and business relationship.
The trip to Aruba, according to emails cited by the OCE, was initially meant to be a PAC event hosted by HSP Direct. The watchdog, however, said that documents and communications from the company and FEC filings showed that HSP Direct’s PAC did not have any involvement in financing the trip. It was reportedly planned to reward roughly 160 HSP Direct employees for achieving sales goals.
The OCE first launched a preliminary review into allegations against Mooney in August after receiving a written request for such a probe. In September, a second-phase review commenced, and in December, the OCE board voted to refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee. The committee in February revealed that it had received the OCE report the month prior.
Details of the probe, however, were first made public on Monday. Mooney did not cooperate with the probe.
The independent watchdog also said Mooney likely breached House rules and federal law when he recruited his congressional staff to plan the family trip to Aruba during official time and using official resources. One former staffer for the congressman told the office about hours of work completed in the lead up to the trip, including scheduling COVID-19 tests, acquiring travel visas and obtaining travel insurance.
The night before the trip, the staffer said she worked from roughly 6 p.m. until about 11 p.m. to ensure that all documents were prepared.
Additionally, the OCE said Mooney only partially reimbursed his family’s flights to Aruba.
Aside from the Aruba trip, the watchdog said it has evidence that Mooney used campaign funds for personal use, buying groceries and financing family activities.
The OCE also said the congressman may have authorized impermissible expenditures from his Member Representational Allowance, which is the budget authorized for each member of Congress, and may have withheld, concealed or falsified information during the watchdog’s investigation.
The OCE is able to make referrals or recommendations to the House Ethics Committee, which then has the authority to levy punishments if necessary, and determine if the conduct in question violated ethics rules.
Mooney slammed the OCE report in a statement on Monday, writing that the probe “was tainted from the outset by the OCE’s procedural irregularities and denial of due process.”
“These procedural improprieties are compounded by the OCE’s rampant factual misrepresentations, evidentiary exaggerations, and plainly wrong legal conclusions in its report. For these reasons, Congressman Mooney believes the only fair outcome in this matter would be the outright dismissal of the OCE’s report and referral,” he added.
The congressman’s office asserted that he reimbursed HSP Direct for the trip to Aruba, arguing that “There was no improper connection between any gift and any official action by the Congressman.”
“No taxpayer funds were used to pay for this trip,” the statement reads.
The West Virginia Republican’s office also said the congressman “flatly rejects the OCE’s allegations of evidence tampering and false statements,” calling the office’s conclusions “biased” and “based on exaggerated ‘evidence’ that does not even satisfy the OCE’s low burden of proof.”
Despite his criticism, however, Mooney has been and will continue to cooperate with the committee, according to his office.
The OCE released its report less than two weeks after Mooney bested a primary challenger in his race for renomination. He defeated Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) for the GOP nod.
Former President Trump had endorsed Mooney.