Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lugar Could Face Criminal Charges For Illegally Billing Lodging Expenses For Indiana Trips

While the disclosure this past week that Sen. Richard Lugar had illegally billed taxpayers for overnight lodging in Indianapolis over the past decade was met with a collective yawn by the media in Indiana, the problem Sen. Lugar blamed on his staff is no small matter. Similar wrongdoing committed by former Minnesota Sen. David Durenberger (R-MN) less than a decade ago helped sink his political career.

Sen. Durenberger and members of his Senate staff were indicted after federal investigators learned that he had filed fraudulent claims for $3,825 in lodging expenses over a two-year period during return trips to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Sen. Durenberger had earlier agreed to repay the government over $11,000 in travel expenses after the Senate Rules Committee had determined that he had illegally billed the Senate for lodging expenses during his return trips to Minnesota. Sen. Durenberger agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of converting public funds to personal use in consideration for dropping pending felony charges against him and to avoid a prison sentence. He was fined $1,000.

Sen. Lugar told Politico this past week that he had agreed to repay $4,500 to the U.S. Treasury after he says an internal audit revealed that he had been illegally reimbursed for overnight lodging in Indianapolis while the Senate was not in session over a 10-year period. Lugar announced the return of the money after he learned that his travel records were being reviewed by others. In official Senate filings, Sen. Lugar has claimed that his "duty station" or place of residence within his home state is a home he abandoned 35 years ago that is currently owned by Elizabeth Hughes. Senate rules bar Senators from obtaining reimbursement for lodging expenses incurred while the Senate is not in session when a Senator returns to the region of his or her "duty station." Sen. Lugar claimed the error resulted from a lack of knowledge of an obscure rule regarding to travel expenses within the region of a senator's duty station. It is shocking that the issue would not have occurred to Sen. Lugar given the criminal indictment his fellow Republican colleague faced for a similar offense. In Durenberger's case, he had failed to disclose his ownership of his Minneapolis condominium he owned when he filed for travel reimbursement. Lugar's filings falsely claim residence at a home he sold 35 years ago. In both cases, the lawmakers received reimbursement for personal travel expenses not permitted by law.

A further review of the expenses Sen. Lugar billed taxpayers in 2011 reveal that he billed taxpayers for travel expenses incurred when he returned to Indiana for campaign-related events. Lugar's statement to Politico last week did not discuss those charges. The Indiana Democratic Party has requested that Lugar reveal the findings of his internal audit. Earlier, the Democratic Party had revealed that Sen. Lugar had billed taxpayers for more than $70,000 in travel expenses for return trips to Indiana over the past decade after the party obtained those records through a FOIA request. In making the disclosure this past week, Sen. Lugar told Politico he was seeking advice on whether he had to personally repay the funds or whether he could repay them using funds from his campaign committee. Without matching the travel requests Lugar is reimbursing with the actual audit findings and comparing them to his travel records, it is difficult to determine what other reimbursements may or may not have been proper.

Citizen activist Greg Wright has filed a new complaint with the Senate Rules and Administration Committee requesting an investigation of this latest disclosure of impropriety on Sen. Lugar's part. Earlier, Wright filed a complaint accusing Sen. Lugar of using his Senate office for personal business use after he discovered that Lugar was using his Indianapolis Senate office as the registered office and listing him as the registered agent at that address for Lugar Stock Farm, Inc., a corporation that owns a Lugar family farm in Marion County. Days after Wright filed his complaint, Lugar amended the Secretary of State filings for the family business to change the registered office to his brother's home in Indianapolis.

A March 15th hearing conducted by the Marion County Board of Elections based on a complaint filed by Wright against Lugar and his wife accusing them of illegally voting using the Indianapolis home the couple abandoned 35 years ended with a finding that the Lugars were in fact illegally registered to vote. Despite the finding, the Board declined to make a finding the Lugars had violated any criminal laws. Sen. Lugar has filed suit against the Board seeking to overturn its finding. Former Indiana Secretary of State Charlie White was criminally indicted and convicted and forced from office for registering and casting a ballot in one election using the home of his ex-wife where the evidence showed that he actually slept several nights a week, received mail and his son resided. White's accusations produced universal condemnation and damnation by the Indiana news media, while the media has accused Lugar's opponents of engaging in partisan attacks by questioning his voter registration. By way of disclosure, I represent Wright in his election board complaint against the Lugars.

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