Reports of lavish spending sprees paid for by donations–as well as Congressman Devin Nunes’ (R-Tulare) ongoing lack of face-to-face contact with his constituents–have opponents of the eight-term representative working harder than ever to unseat him.
Viva Las Vegas!
Details of Nunes’ free spending first emerged in a report issued last month by a pair of campaign finance watchdog groups. Among details released by Issue One and the Campaign Legal Center regarding regular high-dollar spending by politicians on both sides of the aisle was the news Nunes spent nearly $43,000 of donors’ money on trips to Las Vegas since 2013. Funds from the Nunes-controlled New PAC were also used to purchase Boston Celtics tickets totaling $15,000.
The latest trip to Las Vegas came in March, when more than $7,200 was spent at a series of restaurants and hotels. In June, nearly $15,000 of New PAC money covered the cost of visiting a string of Central Coast wineries by limousine and a stay at a sea-side hotel.
Nunes’ office did not respond to a request to discuss the spending.
‘A Corrupt Politician’
The report also revealed Nunes has spent more than $5,500 on private jet rentals using New PAC funds. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) rules prohibit using such money for airplane rentals.
Money from so-called “leadership PACs,” such as New PAC, are used by politicians to make donations among themselves and to committees they head.
While the Republican congressman has little to say in his defense, the Democratic challenger for the office has proved much more willing to talk about the opulent outlays of cash. Andrew Janz–a prosecutor for the Fresno District Attorney’s Office who will face Nunes at the polls in November–says his opponent is no longer the idealistic young man elected in 2003.
“We sent Devin to Congress 16 years ago, and somewhere along the way he got lost,” Janz said. “He’s become a Washington insider. He no longer serves the people who elected him. He’s become what people in the Valley hate the most, a corrupt politician.”
Cutting Corporate Influence
Spending thousands on wine, sports tickets, hotels and meals, and limo rides looks particularly bad given the high rate of poverty in the 22nd Congressional District, Janz said.
“I don’t think the voters of our district sent him to Washington to take private jets to Vegas,” he said. “It’s not good optics, especially given all the problems we have in the Valley. We don’t have water, we don’t have jobs, and he’s out there spending like this.”
Janz believes the allure of large donations from companies with no presence in the Valley have led Nunes to abandon his constituents and ignore their needs.
“That’s why I’m running a campaign funded by grassroots donors, not corporate donors,” he said.
Support from voters seems to be there. Polling last month performed by PPP showed Janz trailing Nunes by just 8 points. The poll, which has a margin of error of +/- 3.8%, shows Janz trailing 49%-41%. Janz says where locals are spending their money also shows they favor him of the longtime incumbent.
“I’ve raised four times more money in the district in than Nunes,” Janz said. “I think that speaks to the level of support he and I have here in the Valley.”
Following the Money
Spending his supporters’ money at extreme levels isn’t the only financial hot water Nunes has found himself in this year.
In March, Toni Dian Nunes, the congressman’s mother and campaign finance chair, received notification from the FEC the body was investigating her son for possible finance violations. Two of the three alleged violations involve excessive donations, including one from the head of a DC lobbying group, and a third involves an improper donation from a corporation.
Such letters to politicians and the minor violations they describe are common. The nature of the donations, from a large corporation in one case and from a donor with no ties to the 22nd District in another, leave voters questioning Nunes’ loyalty, says Janz. He says it’s important they know who funds their representative.
“I’ve been hammering him on this issue every single day,” Janz said.
The People’s Issues
Janz isn’t the only one redoubling efforts to seat a new congressman.
South Valley Civics, a political group focused on Nunes’ lack of town hall meetings and his steadfast reluctance to meet face-to-face with most of his constituents, has increased the frequency of protests over the representative’s absence from once a month to once a week.
They’ve also changed location and made the demonstrations more issue-oriented.
The group now marches at 10am each Tuesday at the corner of Mooney Boulevard and Walnut Avenue in Visalia. Attendance has been heavy and the public response good, said Cynthia Thorburn, speaking for the group.
“We’re waving. We’re smiling,” she said. “It’s all about love, community and respect. We get a lot of honking.”
Gone from the protest signs is any mention of Nunes. Instead, most call for action on a political issue dear to the voters in Tulare and Fresno counties. It’s a way, Thorburn says, of showing the people have not forgotten.
“Nunes is not here to address people’s concerns about issues,” she said. “So we’re bringing the issues to the community.”
‘Asking for Money’
Thorburn’s most recent attempt to talk to Nunes involved plans to retool federal health care programs for seniors.
“I emailed a month or more ago to get an appointment, because the GOP wants to mess with MediCare,” she said. “I never got a response. I went upstairs (to Nunes’ downtown Visalia office), I said I emailed you and I’d like to meet with the congressman.”
She wasn’t allowed in the office, instead giving her name, address and telephone number to a worker through an intercom mounted in the hallway.
“They wrote it down, but they didn’t let me in the door,” Thorburn said. “I didn’t hear anything, other than getting letters asking for money.”