- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - A family trip to California that Indiana congressman Marlin Stutzman paid for with campaign money included visits to Universal Studios and Capitol Records, lunch with a TV producer his wife admires and a VIP dining experience beside Ronald Reagan’s airplane.

Those were among details that emerged last week in a report by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which began investigating the Stutzman family’s August 2015 California visit after The Associated Press first reported on it in April. The six-day adventure occurred during the Republican’s losing Senate primary contest against U.S. Rep. Todd Young, who won November’s general election.

A House ethics panel said it would continue its own probe after the OCE concluded that much of the trip appears “to have been undertaken for personal purposes, with only incidental, if any, campaign-related benefit,” according to the report. “There is substantial reason to believe that campaign funds were used to pay for a personal family trip.”

The Federal Election Commission, House ethics rules and federal law prohibit the use of campaign funds for personal matters. Still, Stutzman is unlikely to face any punishment because the House ethics panel will lose jurisdiction once his term is over in January.

In depositions, both Stutzman and his wife, Christy, insisted the trip for them and their two sons was political in nature and a legitimate campaign expense. But the report includes an email from a campaign manager who questioned the congressman’s decision to use campaign contributions to cover what his wife called “a family vacation” on her Facebook page.

“How was this a campaign expense?” wrote campaign manager Brendon DelToro, who resigned soon after the trip. He added: “This is ridiculous.”

The three-term, tea party-backed congressman from northeast Indiana did not respond to telephone messages left at his office by the AP.

Stutzman ultimately refunded some of the campaign money used to pay for the California visit, but only after the AP started asking questions about it last spring. He had billed his campaign more than $3,000 for airfare and a car rental.

The California visit represents a small part of the over $300,000 in flights, vehicle charges, meals and hotel stays Stutzman’s campaign has spent since he went to Washington in 2010 on a pledge to oppose special interests and out-of-control government spending.

Stutzman told investigators a major reason he went to California was fundraising. Emails and depositions show the trip was planned as early as the fall 2014 - months before he announced his Senate bid.

While in California, Stutzman had three campaign related meetings and spoke on the phone with former Gov. Pete Wilson. Campaign finance records show that Stutzman raised a little more than $3,000 in contributions from California residents during the trip, though he says he later collected donations from people he met on the trip.

Stutzman also argued that other social engagements and family meals were campaign-related. They included meetings with actors and executives from the Hallmark Channel and TV producer Michael Landon Jr., the son of an actor who played “Little Joe” on the 1960s television series “Bonanza.” Those meetings, the congressman and his wife said, were efforts to build a donor network that could lead to future contributions.

“You’re laying a foundation to be able to raise money,” Christy Stutzman said in her deposition.

In his own deposition, Landon offered a different take.

“I know Congressman Stutzman through his wife, Christy Stutzman, who is a fan of a TV series that I’m executive producer on: ‘When Calls the Heart,’” he said. “There is a fan base called the Hearties and she is one of the administrators, I believe, and they have been championing our series.”

While in Los Angeles, the family also caught a live taping of a Hallmark Channel TV show.

The Stutzmans’ trip was intended to coincide with a simultaneous trip to California led by conservative Fort Wayne radio host Pat Miller, a Stutzman friend. The family joined Miller’s group for a tour of and Reagan’s presidential library.

“Those things (campaign and personal events) overlap a lot,” Stutzman told investigators. “Still, in our minds, that was a campaign stop.”

Stutzman says he did receive a fundraising boost after the trip - from Indiana residents on Miller’s tour, who the family met while on the West Coast.


Follow Brian Slodysko at https://twitter.com/BrianSlodysko

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