Meadows had endorsed Bennett, a friend and ally, and when the Republican primary in that district grew unexpectedly contentious in the wake of Meadows' resignation, local Republicans began to suspect that the chief of staff was putting his thumb on the scale. Salon's investigation now raises questions about whether Meadows' support ventured into the financial realm as well.
Meadows announced late last December that he would not run for re-election in his North Carolina congressional seat, but his campaign went on to spend more than $60,000 before he officially converted the committee to a leadership PAC. In that same time his campaign raised just $300.
He created Freedom First PAC in early July, and it has since spent more than $14,000, federal filings show, including on cupcakes, Costco, a cell phone and lodging at President Trump's Washington hotel. Despite its spending, Freedom First has reported raising no money at all, which is highly unusual for any PAC, especially in the run-up to a national election.
It is illegal to spend campaign and PAC funds on personal expenses, such as groceries and meals.
"After Meadows announced he would not seek re-election, then took a job in the White House, his campaign account continued to spend large sums of money on food and beverage and lodging, including at the Trump Hotel, even though it was no longer fundraising," Jordan Libowitz, of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics and Washington (CREW), told Salon. This pattern, he continued, "raises serious questions" about the purpose of that spending.
Former Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, "is going to prison for using his campaign account for personal expenses, including at restaurants and hotels," Libowitz added. "Meadows needs to explain what these expenses were for."
Brendan Fischer, director of regulatory oversight at the Campaign Legal Center, agreed. He told Salon, "Campaign funds may be used to support one's candidacy or duties as an officeholder, but after a person is no longer a candidate or congressional officeholder, campaign expenditures can look much more questionable."
Between January and March of this year, the Meadows campaign reported spending a total of $5,570 in donor funds on food and beverage items. About $1,600 of that went to the Capitol Hill Club, a mainstay hangout for House Republicans, just around the corner from Republican National Committee headquarters, including an $1,100 purchase on Jan. 13 — the same day Hunter resigned from the House for manifold campaign finance violations.
Hunter's campaign had spent more than $100,000 at the Capitol Hill Club dating back to 2008. The Meadows campaign reported spending about half that amount at the GOP haunt in 109 separate expenditures since 2012, though most of those reports came in the four years after Trump's election: more than $37,000 since 2017.
"There are plenty of possible reasons for this, especially because he was still a candidate for most of it," Libowitz explained of the meals, which ranged from several thousand dollars to very small sums, a handful below $20.
"He could be having fundraising meetings. Or meeting with campaign staff. Or he could, like Duncan Hunter, be using the campaign card to pick up his own tab," Libowitz continued. (The campaign reported raising just $786 gross between January and April, $292 of that in net contributions — and nothing at all thereafter.) "In and of itself, it doesn't prove anything," he added, "but it does at least ask for explanation."
A week after that serendipitous Capitol Hill Club expense, the campaign reported spending $312 on food and beverage at The Grove Park Inn & Resort, a four-star country club in Asheville, North Carolina, in Meadows' home district. It expensed a $15 parking fee for the same affair.
Campaign filings also show a $84 campaign expense at Lavender Moon Cupcakery in Alexandria, Virginia, on Feb. 12, and last month his leadership PAC — the direct extension of his campaign committee — dropped another $70 at the same bakery in two visits a week apart, with a $400 lodging expense at Trump International in between.
The Meadows campaign also told the FEC that it spent a total of $1,100 on food and drinks at Trump's Washington hotel, after Meadows had announced the end of his campaign. This included $500 on March 3 of this year — Super Tuesday in the Democratic primary race. (Hotel insiders know Tuesdays as "lobbyist night.")
Trump named Meadows his new chief of staff three days after that.
On March 30, the day that Meadows officially resigned from the House — more than three months after announcing that he would not run for re-election — his campaign reported spending $2,650 on "printed materials" from Washington custom jeweler Ann Hand.
"I have no legitimate explanation for that one," Brett Kappel, campaign finance expert at Hammon Curran, told Salon. "It's illegal to make a false statement to the FEC. If he used campaign funds to buy jewelry for someone, that could be another personal use violation. The FEC allows campaigns to use campaign funds to buy gifts for donors or volunteers — but they have to be disclosed as such."
The purchase, however, is not flagged as a gift, something Meadows did for previous purchases. While Hand's website does not advertise printed products such as stationery, the store, which deals predominantly in politically-themed jewelry and accessories, sells printed American Eagle silk scarves at $350 apiece.
The site also showcases a number of custom and individualized pieces, including some made for members of Congress and the White House. A single Trump-Pence pin studded with Swarovski crystals costs $65 — two percent of what Meadows expensed. In October 2019, the campaign reported spending $925 on "Logo Lapel Pins with Magnets" from Coates Designers in Franklin, North Carolina.
The purchase underscores the unusual phenomenon: Meadows was no longer campaigning, but his campaign still racked up expenses. While it's normal for campaigns that have ended to have a grace period to wrap up loose ends, many of the disbursements that Meadows listed are difficult to understand in those terms, since he was no longer a political candidate.
For instance, Meadows paid campaign associate Henry Mitchell more than $5,000 for "field representative mileage" in five installments between January and March.
"There's still campaign work that can be done as a campaign winds down. It's not out of the ordinary to keep someone around to help out," Libowitz said of those expenses. "But at 58 cents a mile, back-of-the-envelope math has it at 900 miles some weeks. That's a ton of driving."
It's not clear why Mitchell was putting on so many miles, or where. However, the Republican primary to replace Meadows had already grown chaotic by February, with Bennett, his friend and hand-picked successor, facing a number of candidates, some to her right. At the time, local Republican operatives speculated that Meadows had been trying to tip the scales in her favor, according to Politico.
Two days after his Super Tuesday expense at Trump hotel, Meadows' campaign reported giving $4,000 to Bennett's campaign: $2,000 for the Republican primary; and $2,000 for the general election. Trump had announced Meadows would be hired as chief of staff the previous day, and as mentioned above, he officially resigned from Congress at the end of the month.
Furthermore, FEC filings show that the Meadows campaign continued to spend campaign money in the months after his resignation and before he filed to create Freedom First PAC on July 1. These expenses include phone bills, in-flight internet, food, groceries and consulting.
In mid-April, two weeks after Meadows signed on with the White House, his campaign reported a $360 meal expense at the Capitol Hill Club, in the middle of coronavirus lockdowns. That week the Capitol Hill Club, which had been shuttered, posted a mailer about delivering charity meals to frontline workers.
Asked if the Meadows campaign could have expensed meals as a charity gift, Kappel said it was possible, but pointed out that if so, the filing should have indicated that.
"The FEC would probably allow that, but it would have to be reported more specifically than this. A memo entry would be sufficient — something like 'charitable contribution of food for hospital workers' — but the receipt doesn't show that," he said.
In the end, Meadows' efforts did not sustain Bennett, who lost her June 23 primary to pro-Trump political newcomer Madison Cawthorne. That same day, the Meadows campaign reported a $2,300 payment to Henry Mitchell, the aforementioned field representative, for "management consulting." (Mitchell was formerly the chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party, in Meadows' district.)
A week later, on the last day of the Meadows' campaign's official existence, his campaign reported a $600 expense at a Safeway grocery store.
Furthermore, the Meadows and Bennett campaigns, along with Right Women PAC, which was founded by Meadows' wife, are the only three political committees in the U.S. to report payments to a company called Tower Digital, which was founded by Meadows' brother — who apparently registered Bennett's campaign domain in October 2019, according Politico.
Additionally, Meadows' campaign lists political expenditures that on their face do not seem to fit the needs of a candidate who has already announced he will no longer be seeking elected office.
For instance, the campaign reported paying pollster McLaughlin & Associates $11,200 on Jan. 7, three weeks after Meadows announced he would no longer be campaigning. That same day the campaign reported a $3,000 payment to Hammond & Associates for "Fundraising Consulting," with another $3,032 consulting payment to the company on Jan. 10, filings show.
"The only legitimate answer is that Meadows asked his campaign vendors to submit any outstanding invoices or receipts so that they could be paid, but if he had done that you would expect one lump sum payment," Kappel told Salon. "If Meadows had polling done in the interest of a candidate he wanted to replace him, that would be an excessive in-kind contribution."
Although Meadows made his retirement announcement in December, Politico reported that skeptical North Carolina Republicans noticed a number of coincidences surrounding Barrett's entry into the race — among them the October domain registry, as well as other indications she had a heads-up on Meadows' announcement, the timing of which caught other GOP hopefuls off guard.
It is unclear why Meadows paid a polling company weeks after announcing his retirement from Congress, and possibly months after having made the decision, as Politico's reporting suggests. Similarly, it seems Meadows would owe an explanation for $6,000 in fundraising consulting expenses for a dead campaign that went on to raise less than $300 in net contributions for all of 2020 to date.
"While some of the campaign's expenses in the first quarter might be justified," Brendan Fischer of the CLC told Salon, "those meal and grocery expenses from the period after Meadows resigned from Congress raise the most red flags for me. Those post-April expenses for meals at the Capitol Hill Club and groceries cannot possibly be connected to Meadows' candidacy or congressional duties, since he was neither a candidate nor a congressman at that time."
The spending continued after Meadows established his new PAC, Freedom First, which has not raised any money since its July 1 inception. It remains unclear exactly what could legitimize the $14,500 in campaign expenses reported since then.
Those expenditures include several meal purchases, including $1,000 at the Capitol Hill Club on July 21. Remarking on that expense, Fischer pointed out that the FEC, in response to a CLC complaint, fined former Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, in 2019 for using his old campaign account to pay for Capitol Hill Club dues and meals, among other things.
Then, in August, Freedom First reported its largest expenditure: A $10,000 PAC donation, the maximum amount allowable under election law, made to Ralph Sexton Ministries on Aug. 10. The Meadows campaign had previously reported only one other contribution to the organization, of $1,000 in April 2019.
Sexton ran a church in Asheville that Debbie Meadows and Lynda Bennett both attended. He introduced the two women, along with Jim Jordan's wife, Polly, to a crowd of churchgoers this winter, according to local outlet the Mountaineer. Sexton announced his retirement from the church on Saturday, two months after the $10,000 contribution from Freedom First.
Bennett's campaign finished $70,000 in debt, and she still needs to return the Meadows campaign's $2,000 general election contribution, since she lost the Republican primary and is not on the ballot in November. Her campaign has $1,000 cash on hand, according to filings.
However, the lion's share of Bennett's outstanding debt is owed to herself: She loaned her campaign $80,000 on the last day of 2019, days after Meadows announced his retirement.
Freedom First has still not raised any money after all of this activity, but it continued to spend into September, including at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. In August it filed a series of payments to Tower Digital, Meadows' brother's company, as well a $240 payment to Costco and $1,000 to the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro.
"You can't use campaign funds to buy your groceries at Costco," said Kappel.
Freedom First's most recent payment was reported on Sept. 24: an Uber ride, for $80.32.
Lynda Bennett's campaign did not reply to Salon's detailed request for comment. The White House did not reply to multiple detailed requests for comment.