Byline: MATT DIXON
Maryland's Caves Valley Golf Course touts itself as more than 900 acres of pristine natural beauty.
"Rolling hills, pastures, woods, and wetlands, situated amid the natural beauty of Maryland's estate and hunt country, form a spectacular setting for the golf club," reads the course's Web site.
U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw knows the view well.
Since 2004, the Jacksonville Republican spent nearly $90,000 hosting fundraising events at the exclusive "members only" club, expenditure reports indicate.
Money for the event did not come from taxpayers, or even contributions to Crenshaw's campaign account. The money instead came from a less-heralded source known as a Leadership Political Action Committee. The money is legal and, among other things, allows members of Congress to financially support their colleagues. That financial support builds political capital, which can be used when a member is seeking a leadership position in Congress.
Crenshaw's office says his Leadership PAC, Americans Nationwide Determined to Elect Republicans (ANDER PAC), has been helpful in allowing him to support like-minded candidates.
"Congressman Crenshaw formed his leadership political action committee ... in early 2002 to support the election of Republicans to the U.S. Congress. Since its creation, his leadership PAC has contributed to nearly 75 Republicans seeking election to the U.S. House or the U.S. Senate," said Barbara Riley, Crenshaw's chief of staff.
She said that the money paid to the Maryland golf course, which is the largest single recipient of cash from Crenshaw's Leadership PAC, was for an annual fundraiser held for the PAC.
'THEY ... SHOULD NOT BE AROUND'
Since their inception over two decades ago, Leadership PACs have evolved beyond the original intention of supporting colleagues. They now serve as pots of money used to fund not only political contributions, but also travel, expensive dinners and trips to posh golf courses.
"They are political slush funds," said Meridith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan group that studies issues surrounding campaign finance. "Because there are few regulations, it is easy to let donors pay for a nice meal. It's a nice lifestyle."
She said that even a Leadership PAC's intended purpose of helping colleagues is questionable.
"They are used to buy influence," McGehee said. "It is a fairly corrupting practice."
That skepticism is shared by others in the government watchdog community.
"I don't think anybody besides members [of Congress] and lobbyists that want to buy influence would defend them," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit group that promotes ethics in government.
She also termed Leadership PACs "slush funds" and, like McGehee, has called for them to be abolished.
"There is no reform for these things," Sloan said. "They just should not be around."
The four members of the Northeast Florida congressional delegation - Republicans Cliff Stearns, John Mica and Crenshaw and Democrat Corrine Brown - are among the more than 300 current and former lawmakers that have active Leadership PACs. Since 2007, they have spent Leadership PAC money on more than $200,000 in political contributions, more than $100,000 in fundraising events for their PACs, nearly $30,000 on food and catering, and more than $14,000 on travel expenses, a Times-Union analysis of documents filed with the Federal Election Commission reveals.
The four are not alone. In 2007 and 2008, ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, found that of the $112 million brought in by all Leadership PACs, half was spent on things like entertainment, administrative costs and fundraising.
Started in 2008, Brown's PAC - Florida Delivers Leadership - is newer than her Northeast Florida counterparts, but is already playing a role in her fundraising strategy. …