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Sewell’s use of campaign funds for club dues legal

CQ Roll Call, a Washington-based news organization covering Capitol Hill, released an article Wednesday detailing the use of campaign funds by members of Congress for “plush club” memberships, expenses which the article claimed “the Federal Election Commission [(FEC)] automatically deems as prohibited personal use” – among those reported on in the article was U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-AL.

“Rep. Terri A. Sewell’s campaign spent more than $2,800 on dues to City Club Birmingham and $222 in similar fees to The City Club of Washington, both of which are owned by ClubCorp USA Inc,” the Roll Call article stated. “Sewell, an Alabama Democrat, has spent just under $9,000 overall at the social club in Birmingham since 2017, which offers an Enomatic wine dispenser, upscale bar, dining and fitness facilities. Additional campaign money was spent on fundraisers and meals. The Alabama club describes itself as ‘the premier business and social center for the city’s professional elite.’”

The story was quickly picked up by Yellowhammer News, a conservative Alabama media outlet founded by Cliff Sims, who went on to serve as U.S. President Donald Trump’s Assistant Communications Director for White House messaging, asserting that Sewell “improperly spent campaign cash.”

However, Sewell’s campaign asserted that the expenditures in question were not only legal, but approved beforehand.

“Rep. Sewell’s campaign payments were fully lawful,” a statement from the campaign said. “FEC rules allow candidates to use campaign funds to pay membership dues in community or civic organizations. The FEC has approved dues payments to organizations like the City Club of Birmingham under this allowance. Moreover, the campaign worked in good faith to comply with the law. The club was used solely for political and officially connected events and not for personal purposes. An outside ethics expert and a professional compliance firm were consulted before the payments were made. Finally, the payment to the City Club of Washington was simply for the costs of attending an officially-connected event. Rep. Sewell remains completely committed to following the spirit and the letter of the rules governing her campaign.”

Indeed, the FEC’s own rules state the following:

“Campaign funds may not be used to pay for dues to country clubs, health clubs, recreational facilities or other nonpolitical organizations unless the payments are made in connection with a specific fundraising event that takes place on the organization’s premises. Campaign funds may be used for membership dues in an organization that may have political interests.”

According to Sewell’s campaign, the congresswoman’s membership at the City Club of Birmingham was specifically for use of the club for fundraising activities – a membership was secured in order to avoid having to pay an additional charge for use of the space.

Further, the campaign insists that Sewell never used the facility for personal use and has since canceled her membership.

Additionally, the campaign sought and received approval before using campaign funds for the membership dues.

Though neither the Roll Call or Yellowhammer News articles mentioned it, other Alabama lawmakers spent campaign money for dues.

FEC filings show U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-AL, used campaign funds for “dues” to the 116 Club in Washington, a place The New York Times once described as “the lunch and cocktail hour watering hole where the city’s most influential lobbyists present their employers’ points of view to Government decision makers away from the prying eyes of newsmen and the public.”

Over 60 entries are listed from Aderholt to the 116 Club for dues, membership dues and food and beverage.

Aderholt also used campaign funds for dues to the International Club of [Washington] DC, The Congressional Club and the Capitol Hill Club.

Further, Aderholt used campaign funds to pay Costco dues.

U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer, R-AL, likewise spent campaign dollars on membership dues to the Capitol Hill Club, while U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-AL, used campaign funds for “dues” to the Capitol Hill Club.