Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) on May 20, 2021, asking for an investigation into possible House rules violations by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
McCarthy may have rented an apartment at below market rate from an influential political consultant and pollster, Frank Luntz, in violation of House gift rules. Alternatively, he may have used leadership PAC funds to cover the rental cost of the apartment, in violation of the House’s ban on using campaign funds for personal use.
Public service is a public trust, which is why we need rules to ensure that members of Congress are acting impartially, free from the influence of gifts or favors. To this end, House ethics rules prohibit members of Congress from knowingly accepting gifts, including “lodging,” from outside sources.
The rules include limited exceptions for gifts of goods and services that are provided at fair market value and gifts from friends, as long as they are exchanged in a personal capacity and do not exceed $250. House rules also prohibit using campaign funds, including leadership PAC funds, for personal use.
An unnamed spokesperson for McCarthy told the Daily Wire that McCarthy paid a fair market rate of $1,500 per month for his apartment. McCarthy has also said in recent Fox News interviews that Luntz has been a close friend of his for decades.
But available data about the cost of similar luxury apartments in the neighborhood cast doubt on the assertion that McCarthy paid the fair market rate for his apartment. Other exceptions to the gift rule pertaining to personal friendship do not seem to apply in this case.
McCarthy’s rental was in the Clara Barton Building located in Penn Quarter, a desirable neighborhood near the Capitol. According to The Washington Post, he rented part of a 7,000-square-foot penthouse apartment that was a combination of four three-bedroom units in the building.
A one-bedroom unit located in Penn Quarter typically rents for far more than $1,500 per month. But McCarthy’s accommodations may have been more comparable to a three-bedroom apartment, which in that neighborhood would cost more than three times what McCarthy paid.
In the Clara Barton Building, a one-bedroom unit with less than half of the square footage of the apartments forming the penthouse where McCarthy stayed currently rents for $2,200 per month. A three-bedroom apartment, which would rent for closer to $5,500 per month. In this case, he couldn’t have used the fair market exception to avoid a gift rule violation.
Because the total amount of the gift would be worth more than $250, McCarthy also cannot claim the gift was a permissible gift from a friend.
It’s possible that Rep. McCarthy did pay a fair market rate for his apartment using payments from his leadership PAC fund to Luntz’s polling firm prior to moving in. But that would also be a violation of House rules. Campaign funds, including leadership PAC funds, are not permitted to be used for personal purposes, like paying for rent.
We need more accountability and less corruption in Congress. When a member of Congress accepts gifts in violation of the rules, it raises the appearance of corruption and feeds into the perception that lawmakers are susceptible to improper influence efforts, damaging the public’s confidence in the integrity of the government.
Because members of Congress create laws affecting the lives of all Americans, we need to be able to trust that they are prioritizing the public’s interest above their own self-interest.
Accountability for members of Congress who break the rules helps reassure people that the government is operating with integrity. The OCE should move to open an investigation into whether McCarthy improperly accepted his penthouse apartment as a gift.