Turner, a nine-term member who represents southwestern Ohio, is already facing increased scrutiny as he prepares for what might be his toughest reelection campaign since he was first elected in 2002. House Democrats are targeting his district, which President Donald Trump carried by 7 points in 2016, and he was outraised last quarter by his Democratic opponent, Desiree Tims.
In a statement, Turner denied any impropriety and called the story “a political hit job initiated by my opponent.”
“All of Mike Turner or his team’s expenses in the 18 years he has served in Congress have always been legally and publicly disclosed and reported,” campaign manager Mason Di Palma said. “Our campaign organization spending is consistent with supporting our community and raising money for reelection, routinely spending substantially less than other senior members of Congress.”
Members are allowed to expense meals that are incidental to their role as a candidate or an officeholder, such as food for campaign events, fundraisers or strategy sessions. But the frequency and total of his expenditures raised alarms from good-government groups that he could be misusing his election funds.
“You could come up with a reasonable explanation for one,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog organization. “But in the aggregate, it looks suspicious.”
The campaign typically spends from $4,000 to $7,000 per quarter at various restaurants and describes these in its financial filings as “Meeting Food and Beverage.” Over the two-cycle period, 15 restaurants appear repeatedly in the reports: The campaign expensed 43 trips to Young Chow, a Chinese restaurant on Capitol Hill; 30 trips to Momiji, a Hibachi spot in D.C.’s Chinatown; 23 trips to Tank’s Bar and Grill in Dayton, Ohio, and 17 trips to the Dayton Racquet Club, a premier private club on the top floors of Kettering Tower, the tallest building in the city.
“These expenditures — particularly the restaurants — do seem unusually luxe,” said Adav Noti, a senior director at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center and a former attorney for the Federal Election Commission. “It’s concerning when an elected official consistently spends campaign money on fancy meals because it means that the official’s big campaign donors are essentially subsidizing his lifestyle, and that gives wealthy donors far too much influence at the expense of the official’s actual constituents.”
The majority of Turner’s spending comes from restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Ohio. But the congressman has dined on several occasions in Miami, New York and Boston.
He has also logged several luxury hotel stays in some of those cities and others.
On Dec. 26 of last year, he reported spending $295 at The Hotel Brussels, a four-star hotel in the Belgian capital. Turner disclosed he and his daughter traveled to the United Kingdom earlier that month on a trip organized by a conservative think tank. And he noted that he would “be extending the trip at … personal expense” for a little less than a week on top of his original travel.
After he was approached for comment for this story, Turner later amended his filing to classify that expense as “Meeting Food and Beverage” instead of “Lodging.” He then said through a spokesman that, though the expense was legal, he would reimburse the campaign.
“The valid Brussels expense in question was improperly categorized due to a clerical error. Turner was in NATO meetings in Brussels on his way back from Afghanistan,” Di Palma said. “The campaign will be filing an amendment to the report to correct this clerical error. However, to avoid any further confusion, Mr. Turner has reimbursed the campaign for this expense.” Turner declined to answer questions on the purpose of the meal.
Later, Turner said that he would be repaying all international expenses paid for with his campaign accounts — though he said all were valid and legal.
The congressman also reported spending nearly $1,200 on a stay at the Nautilus Hotel in Miami Beach in mid-April 2020. (Turner’s campaign said the trip was to attend a fundraiser held before the pandemic.) And he has made repeated stays at The Lexington Hotel in New York, a historic Midtown Manhattan establishment that describes itself as a “jazz-era, art deco hotel.”
The congressman does not typically face competitive races and is not one of the more prolific fundraisers in Congress. On average since 2017, Turner has raised about $170,000 per quarter and spent about $150,000.
According to a financial disclosure report Turner filed with the House clerk’s office in July, he held assets amounting to between $182,000 and $781,000 last year; the wide range is due to the nature of the reporting requirements.
Members of Congress are also paid a salary of $174,000 a year.
Federal Election Commission regulations dictate that legitimate campaign or officeholder spending becomes personal spending if the expense is something the member or candidate would incur regardless of whether or not they hold or are seeking a federal office.
According to the House Ethics Manual, a meal can be expensed only if it is part of or incidental to a campaign event, or eaten while a member is traveling on campaign business. It specifically notes that campaigns funds should not be used to pay for a meal attended only by a member and his or her personal friends or family — unless they actively work on the campaign and the meeting has a “clear, specific agenda.”
But the rules allow for many interpretations. The ethics manual also lets members “use funds of their principal campaign committee to pay for food and beverage expenses at official House events,” such as meetings, town halls or caucus events, or for official-related travel.
There has been increased interest in D.C. circles about misuse of campaign funds after then-Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) was accused of spending more than $200,000 from his political account on international family vacations and to cover large bar tabs. He pleaded guilty to the allegations and resigned from Congress.
But most expenditures fall in the gray area. For example, the ethics committee investigated Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) for campaign-funded trips to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. The trip was a fundraising event, but in a report the committee noted “the high cost and the attendance of staff’s families on these trips raised concerns that campaign funds were being converted for personal use.”
This month, Turner himself has alleged that Tims, his Democratic opponent, is violating FEC regulations by accepting a salary from the Ohio Democratic Party to run for Congress and missing reporting deadlines — an accusation that has garnered attention from a local news outlet.
Candidates are allowed to take salaries under certain conditions, but Turner said Tims’ exceeds the limit allowed under federal law. Tims has said her salary did not exceed the limit and called Turner’s accusation a “dirty political attack.”
Tims is a Dayton native who served in the Obama White House and as a Senate staffer. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has identified her as a top challenger.