Arizona Republican Congressman David Schweikert is banking that his past campaign finance transgressions won't sway voters against him, while opponents have capitalized on an old campaign spending mistake.
U.S. Representative Schweikert serves District 6, which ranges from Paradise Valley to Fountain Hills, and was once entrusted to work as the Maricopa County Treasurer.
As a self-described "budget hawk" the politician claims in campaign stump speeches he is "continuously fighting for solutions to curb federal spending and reduce American debt."
But recently, the GOP congressman agreed to pay a $125,000 fine to the Federal Elections Commission, stemming from a campaign finance blunder nearly a decade ago. Regulators found that he improperly spent money on such expenses as fancy dinners, gifts, and airline upgrades.
Arizona Democrats itching to oust the longtime incumbent hope that the violation will haunt his current political campaign bid and that it gives them ammunition to attack Schweikert's morality and fitness for elected office.
Arizona recently redrew the map of congressional and legislative districts, putting Schweikert in District 1, which is geographically similar to the old District 6.
Voters will cast ballots for the August 2 Arizona primary to decide if the GOP will nominate Schweikert for another two-year term.
The five-term GOP lawmaker asserts that he’s the victim in the situation and blamed the mistakes on consultants.
The Federal Elections Commission slapped Schweikert with the fine in December. Elections officials cited a slew of campaign finance law violations, including reporting errors, misuse of campaign money for personal expenses, and “pressuring official staff to perform campaign work,” according to a letter from the U.S. House of Representatives to Schweikert.
The FEC, which oversees campaign financing in federal elections, does not levy fines often.
“Frankly it is rare for the FEC to take action on anything or for FEC complaints to reach a meaningful resolution at all,” Jack Wilenchik, a Phoenix attorney and election law specialist, told Phoenix New Times
But this particular case stood out to federal regulators.
“For any significant settlement or other meaningful disposition to come out of an FEC complaint is somewhat rare in and of itself,” Wilenchik said.
Fewer than a dozen U.S. Representatives have ever been ordered to pay fines since the mid-1970s. Laura Richardson, a Democratic U.S. Representative in California, violated the same rules as the GOP politician in 2012.
But she wasn’t hit with an FEC fine at the time, records show.
The last congressman to face civil penalties was Ander Crenshaw, a former Republican from Florida. His 16-year tenure in the House ended in 2017 after a whistleblower told the FEC he used campaign money to fund personal expenses.
In October 2021, Crenshaw paid a $4,000 fine and surrendered another $13,000 to the U.S. Treasury, according to the FEC.
By contrast, Schweikert volunteered the information about his financial inaccuracies, according to the federal agency.
“When a campaign comes forward with a complaint, the FEC takes that into consideration that they’re coming forward on their own,” Miles Martin spokesperson for the FEC said.
But Schweikert is paying a bigger fine than Crenshaw did.
That's on top of the $50,000 fine handed down by the House Ethics Committee in 2020 to Schweikert.
It was for eleven other ethical violations, including false statements to Congress and efforts to delay an investigation.
The mistake couldn’t be attributed to “minor memory lapses,” the committee determined.
Schweikert points the finger at his former political consultant and chief of staff Oliver Schwab for failing to properly maintain the Schweikert campaign committee's spending records.
Schwab made payments totaling $50,000 to his own firm and credit card with campaign funds, records show.
Schwab's actions marred the reputation of the political action committee, Friends of David Schweikert, spokesperson Chris Baker said.
But years after the events, the politician, not the former chief of staff, is on the hook for the mounting fines.
“While [Schwab] has had no relationship or involvement with the campaign for several years now, we felt it was the right thing to self-report his violations and enter into a conciliation agreement with the FEC,” Baker said.
The campaign introduced nebulous, but what it called “strict,” policies in 2018 to avert more errors after Schweikert decided to run for re-election in this year's race.
Only the voters stand in his way now, as the fine has already been paid in full, the campaign confirmed.
“The matter is closed,” said Baker, who turned his focus to shooting a new campaign ad on Thursday afternoon.
Schweikert agreed to pay the penalty last month for violating three federal finance laws. The FEC released documents last week detailing the transgressions that occurred between 2014 and 2018.
The federal probe, certified by a five-member board in Washington D.C., found $78,000 spent on gifts, drinks, and fancy dinners were filed as consulting expenses and another $1,500 was funneled into Schweikert’s pocket for airline upgrades and dry cleaning bills.
Martin, the FEC spokesperson, couldn’t confirm if the agency was investigating any potential violations before Schweikert came forward.
Elijah Norton, an entrepreneur and political newcomer, is running against Schweikert this year in the new District 1 Republican primary.
Norton tried to capitalize on Schweikert's transgression in a campaign ad last week.
In it, Schweikert’s former treasurer Karen Garrett says, "It’s one of the heartbreaks of my life,” before adding, “I feel like that loyalty was misplaced.”
Schweikert was one of 138 U.S. House Republicans to reject the result of the 2020 presidential election, which he claims was stolen from Donald Trump, but Schweikert accepted the results from the same ballot that returned him to Congress.
And he's still tapped to win back the district seat this year, according to the Cook Political Report
. He’s a two-point favorite in a district that leans Republican.
Schweikert’s 2022 bid has cost $668,000 so far, FEC data shows
, but he has paid his lawyer another $950,000 with campaign money
since June 2018.
He spent $800,000 on his opening bid back in 2013 when the federal violations occurred, according to the FEC.
Norton, another wealthy pro-Trump conservative, is outspending him by nearly $2 million
thus far this year, according to FEC filings.
But the Schweikert campaign remains bullish.
“We remain very confident about the 2022 election," Baker said.
Voters return incumbents in Congress to office 93 percent of the time, on average, according to OpenSecrets.org
, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks money in politics.