As Zeldin’s Star Rose, So Too Did His Travel Expenses

Representative Lee Zeldin, left, greeted a visitor during a mobile office hours event in Southampton in July, 2017.

Representative Lee Zeldin’s campaign first paid for a night at the conservative mega-donor Sheldon Adelson’s Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas in June 2016. 

Zeldin for Congress paid for a stay there amid the gilded faux-Italian decor again the following month. Other visits followed, in September 2017 and three times in the first half of 2018. 

The long-game bet paid off; Mr. Adelson’s companies made direct contributions to the Zeldin campaign committee of at least $14,000 this year alone. Far more flowed to House Republicans indirectly from super PACs that Mr. Adelson supports financially.

As Mr. Zeldin’s political star has risen in his two terms in Congress, so too has his campaign’s spending on travel and related expenses.

These have included trips to Los Angeles and to Florida golf resorts, as well as dozens of flights whose destinations cannot be determined from official disclosures.

Congressional campaign committees are required to give records of their fund-raising and spending to the Federal Election Commission each quarter. Zeldin for Congress has dutifully sent reports to Washington since 2014. An examination of these by The Star showed that the campaign’s travel spending outpaced that of other members of the Long Island Congressional delegation, as well as that of his Democratic opponent in Tuesday’s midterm election, Perry Gershon.

If hotel stays and airfare are a measure of a Congressional candidate’s fund-raising effort, Mr. Zeldin’s campaign has been going all out. Between Jan. 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018, his committee spent more than $49,000 on air travel, hotels, taxis, and related expenses, according to the F.E.C. By comparison, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York spent about $40,000 during the same period.

Mr. Zeldin’s campaign travel expenses are in addition to a House allowance from which he has drawn more than $95,000 since he was first sworn in in 2015.

Gershon for Congress listed $640 in travel expenses and no expenditures for airfare. The two campaigns have amassed roughly the same amount in contributions and loans.

Hotel stays paid for by Zeldin for Congress from 2014 to June included a Miami Marriott, the Boca Raton Waterstone and Waldorf Astoria, and the PGA National Resort and Spa in West Palm Beach, Fla. There were three stays on separate occasions at the Dallas Hilton and three nights in April at the Wequasset Resort and Golf Club in Harwich, Mass.

In July 2017, Zeldin for Congress spent $1,700 at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, Pa., between the 17th and 24th. Also during that period, the campaign fund was billed three times for Amazon purchases of $3.99, $5.99, and $78.18 that were listed as “social media.” Chris Boyle, a Zeldin for Congress press spokesman, said that Mr. Zeldin has been at the resort for a National Republican Congressional Committee meeting and that two of the charges had been disputed with the credit card company and the other was for office frames.

Campaign money raised by candidates and members of Congress are largely restricted to election efforts and duties while in office. They cannot be used for their own or their family’s personal use or enjoyment.

In May, the campaign paid for several days at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Manhattan’s Times Square, during which Mr. Zeldin appeared on Fox News, then took his wife and children to a Mets game against the Phillies.

Spending at gas stations on Long Island is one of the several areas in which Zeldin for Congress also stands out as an anomaly.

Well over half of the stations where Mr. Zeldin’s congressional campaign spent money since 2014 were beyond the First Congressional District boundaries. Federal Election Commission regulations prohibit the use of campaign funds for personal travel.

A close look at the campaign’s gas expenses by The Star showed:

• Well over half of the Zeldin for Congress gas spending from 2014-18 was at six out-of-district stations, all within Representative Peter King’s Second District.

• From mid-2014 through June of this year, Zeldin for Congress paid for gas on more than 400 separate occasions, totaling above $20,000. Of that, between $10,000 and $11,000 was spent at the six stations in Mr. King’s district. 

• One station in particular, a 76 East on Carleton Avenue off the Sunrise Highway in Islip, was listed as making 185 sales to the Zeldin committee since the end of 2016 alone; it has since closed. Another 23 sales were made at a USA Gas less than a block south on Carleton Avenue. Forty-two transactions took place at a Husco gas station about a mile away on Route 27A. All three are in Mr. King’s Second District.

Chris Boyle, a spokesman for Zeldin for Congress, said that the gas purchases were for Mr. Zeldin’s rides to and from John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia Airports when traveling to and from Washington. He said none of the trips were for personal travel by either the congressman or his wife, Diana Zeldin, a legal assistant who works for a Melville firm.

Zeldin for Congress made more than 400 gas purchases between mid-2014 and June, 2018, spending  more than $20,000, half of which was in another member of Congress's district. (Click to enlarge.)

On its face, the amount the Zeldin committee spent on gas is a tiny slice of the campaign’s millions in expenses over the years, but it has drawn attention nonetheless. Almost all of the transactions have been on Long Island, among just a handful of stations, including during periods when Mr. Zeldin was in Washington and his campaign efforts in hibernation.

The only other out-of-district gas charges were on four separate dates in winter 2017, at the same Speedway station just off Interstate 80 in Harrisville, Pa., and a handful in Washington, D.C. 

The top eight gas sellers listed in the disclosures cluster around Brentwood, Bay Shore, and Patchogue. Mr. Zeldin’s five campaign offices are more widely dispersed, in Smithtown, Port Jefferson, Center Moriches, Riverhead, and Hampton Bays; his district office is on Oak Street in Patchogue, a two-minute drive from a Mobil gas station that has been frequently used by the campaign, according to the F.E.C disclosures.

Zeldin for Congress is an outlier among members of the Long Island House delegation in billing gas costs to the campaign committee. Representative King listed just three such fuel charges in 2017 and 2018, although his campaign racked up more than $72,000 in unitemized American Express charges. 

For all of 2015 and 2016, an election year, Representative Kathleen Rice of the Fourth District had no gas expenses, though her campaign logged dozens of trips on the Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak.

Some unknown portion of the Zeldin campaign gas station expenses may not be for automotive fuel as well; 29 transactions for less than $20 are found in the F.E.C. reports. Gas cards for campaign staff are listed separately; those generally were in the thousands of dollars and were mostly paid for at Speedways in Farmingville and Bayport.

The Federal Election Commission uses what it calls the “irrespective test” to determine when campaign spending is a legitimate expense and when it is not. The rule of thumb is if the cost would arise irrespective of a candidacy or an official in office, then the personal use ban applies. Things like household food and clothing, tuition, or entertainment outside of a campaign event are off limits. 

With vehicle expenses, determining what is allowed and what is not is trickier. Campaign committees are supposed to keep contemporaneous logs to help the election commission review questionable costs. If identified, the beneficiary of the banned personal use expenses must reimburse the committee within 30 days. 

Also notable among Mr. Zeldin’s filings are Uber car charges, including in February 2017 on the same day that the congressman appeared on Fox News from a New York City studio. One aspect of the Uber trips is that they often came on the same day that the campaign was also apparently filling up on gas at one of its preferred stations. Because of the way Uber handles transactions, the locations of the nearly 200 trips the campaign paid for could not be determined.

Questions about Mr. Zeldin’s personal financial disclosures have come from First District Democrats. In June, Sue Hornick of Bellport filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics alleging that he had neglected to provide his and his wife’s income and bank account details as well as having no assets other than an Arizona rental property.