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WSJ: Alcee Hastings use of travel stipend questioned

From the Wall Street Journal: "Congressional investigators are questioning a half-dozen lawmakers for possibly misspending government funds meant to pay for overseas travel, according to people familiar with the matter.

"The investigation follows a Wall Street Journal article in March that said lawmakers had used daily cash stipends, meant to cover certain costs of official government travel overseas, to cover expenses that appeared to be unauthorized by House rules. An independent ethics board has referred the matter to the House ethics committee.

"Congressional rules say the daily travel funds, called a per diem, must be spent on meals, cabs and other travel expenses. But when lawmakers travel, many of their meals and expenses are picked up by other people, such as foreign government officials or U.S. ambassadors.

"That can leave lawmakers with leftover money. Lawmakers routinely keep the extra funds or spend it on gifts, shopping or to cover their spouses' travel expenses, according to dozens of current and former lawmakers...

"There is no system for lawmakers to return excess travel funds when they return to the U.S. and investigators may conclude that House rules for the use of per diem are unclear. One lawmaker, Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.), said that he mails a personal check to the U.S. Treasury after each trip. Congress doesn't keep any record of the amount of per diem that is returned to the government.

"The Journal article in March quoted several lawmakers saying they didn't return excess travel funds to the government. Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.) said he once bought marble goblets in Kabul. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D., Fla.) said he paid for drinks and gifts for people who traveled with him. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D., N.C.), who is a member of the House ethics committee, said he sometimes keeps the extra money. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.) said he didn't know if he kept extra money because he doesn't keep receipts.

"According to several lawmakers who have been contacted by ethics investigators, the probe is examining Messrs. Wilson, Hastings and Butterfield, as well as Rep. Aderholt and Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D., Texas). Former Rep. Mark Souder (R., Ind.) was also contacted by investigators."

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