(CNN)Rep. Paul Gosar boasts he’s been “relentless” in seeking to restore fiscal responsibility and “common sense” when it comes to the “bloated” federal government.
“I will continue to cut wasteful federal spending wherever I can,” the Arizona Republican says on his official website. “The American people and taxpayers deserve nothing less.”
Yet Gosar doesn’t seem to practice what he preaches.
A review conducted by the nonpartisan watchdog Moonlight Foundation of the self-described fiscal conservative’s spending shows he has spent more taxpayer dollars on travel than any other member of the House over the past five years — an unusual amount of money spent by a rank-and-file member who has served in the minority for part of that time and has built a scant record of legislative accomplishments.
The analysis of his spending, reviewed by CNN, raises serious questions about the nature of the expenses since congressional rules do not require lawmakers to disclose anything more than the most basic of details: The amount, the date and the expense’s category. Gosar’s office denies misusing taxpayer dollars.
Since 2016, Gosar has spent nearly $1 million in taxpayer dollars on travel — the most in the entire 435-member House — as he has traveled to events in Florida, Colorado, Texas and Europe, among other places, according to congressional records. Members in neighboring Arizona districts that are roughly the same size spent about 40% of that amount in that timeframe, the records show.
And the closest spenders to Gosar were the two delegates from Guam who served over the past five years — and whose district is nearly 8,000 miles away from Washington or about four times the distance from the Capitol to Phoenix. Yet they still managed to incur roughly $65,000 less than Gosar in their travel expenses paid for by US taxpayers over the past five years.
House ethics rules say lawmakers could be held “personally liable” for misusing funds and that their taxpayer-funded allowance may “not be used to pay for any expenses to activities or events that are primarily social in nature, personal expenses, campaign or political expenses or House committee expenses.” Lawmakers and political candidates are required to use their campaign money — raised from donors or their personal funds — to pay for their political travel.
Yet an examination of Gosar’s expenses shows that his campaign finance expenses for travel over the past five years pale in comparison to what he has billed taxpayers.
“No one has spent more taxpayer money on travel in the last five years than Representative Paul Gosar,” said Karen Goll, executive director of the Moonlight Foundation. “After he won his second congressional race, his office’s travel budget started to skyrocket with budget-busting charges on lodging, car rentals, and transportation.”
In a statement, a Gosar spokesperson said taxpayer dollars were spent appropriately and that the higher spending had to do with his role as the chairman of the House’s Western Caucus from 2016-2020. The role, the spokesperson said, requires “extensive official government travel throughout the state of Arizona and the rest of the country,” including travel costs for the congressman and four aides. The spokesperson said that they use “one travel purchase card” for all travel expenses, such as airfare, parking, rental cars and gas.
“Unlike out-of-touch politicians, Congressman Gosar travels back to his district in Arizona every week, then hits the road, to work tirelessly on behalf of his constituents of the Fourth Congressional District, a district roughly 160 times larger than the size of Guam,” said the spokesperson, who asked not to be named.
The House’s Western Caucus holds some events and field visits annually outside Washington. In 2021, it was scheduled to hold a just a handful of events requiring travel, according to its agenda. And when Gosar was chairman, he tweeted about some out-of-town events he attended.
There are dozens of caucuses for House members to join allowing them to showcase their shared interest in various parochial issues — everything from the Wild Salmon Caucus to the 5G Caucus to the Motorcycle Caucus. But these caucuses rarely have much sway in the legislative process, and members often tout their membership with such groups simply to demonstrate their involvement on certain issues with their constituents.
When traveling for official business by car, lawmakers and staff can seek mileage reimbursements. In the final quarter of 2021, for instance, three Gosar aides totaled less than $400 in mileage reimbursements, while Gosar did not disclose any for himself, according to congressional records. Yet at the same time, Gosar’s office disclosed a total of $80,641 in the last quarter for travel expenses for 2021 — nearly half of the $188,099 he incurred for the entire year, the records show.
It’s impossible to know how lawmakers spend their annual allowance because of the rules they set up themselves. Lawmakers’ expenses are largely shielded from the public since they can simply file an expense under a general category, such as “airfare commercial transportation” without any other information. Moreover, disbursements are released quarterly with no fanfare, and the line-item expenses are cumbersome to scour and difficult to find online and to aggregate.
Over the last few years, Gosar made political trips that generated some attention — at the same time as taxpayer-funded travel expenses appeared in his quarterly reports.
In February 2021, for instance, Gosar expensed nearly $3,500 over the same time period where he and his chief of staff Tom Van Flein went to Orlando to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservative activists. While in Orlando, Gosar spoke at the America First Political Action Conference, a gathering known for its white nationalist rhetoric. Records filed with the House show Gosar also billed taxpayers another $1,000 in several lodging expenses over three nights in that time period.
Over a three-day period in July 2018, Gosar disclosed to the House Ethics Committee that a group, Middle East Forum, was paying $9,500 for his travel to London to speak at a rally for a jailed far-right activist who had been criticized for espousing hateful and anti-Islamic rhetoric. That same trip, Gosar dined with a far-right Belgian politician with a history of making racist remarks — Filip DeWinter — for an hours-long dinner in London.
Yet, in that same time period, Gosar’s office charged taxpayers another $2,300 in commercial travel expenses — and there were no corresponding campaign finance expenses in that same period.
There are also many unknown disbursements that raise other questions as well, such as when Gosar billed taxpayers $11,143 in three different expenses for lodging over a three-day period in October 2021 — with no other explanation.
At times, even when some of Gosar’s travel expenses seem to be for official reasons, the expenses don’t seem to justify the need.
For instance, when Gosar attended a two-day July 2019 event hosted by the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, he expensed $3,430 between commercial transportation, lodging, car rental and meals — a hefty expenditure for a two-day event. Similarly, in March 2019, Gosar joined a House Western Caucus roundtable to talk about energy issues in Houston but disbursements from that time period show nearly $5,500 in lodging and travel expenses even though the event appears to have been for 1-2 days.
Gosar’s office did not weigh in on each of these expenses when asked specifically about them. But the spokesperson contended all disbursements were related to official activity.
“Travel receipts are reviewed in-house and by the House of Representatives,” the spokesperson said. “In compliance with all travel rules set forth within the travel guidelines established by the House Committee on Ethics and House Administration, all travel was directly related to officially-connected purposes and at no time were official funds used for unapproved or international travel.”
Little scrutiny over spending habits
A dentist from Flagstaff who was elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave, the 63-year-old Gosar has built a national profile as a hard-right Republican. An anti-immigration hardliner, Gosar became a staunch ally of then-President Donald Trump and worked with a group of House conservatives and the White House to try to overturn Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
After the January 6 riot, Gosar was unapologetic — and contended that the Capitol rioter, Ashli Babbitt, was “executed” by a U.S. Capitol Police officer when she was shot and killed while she and a group of rioters were trying to break in through a glass door just steps from the House floor where lawmakers were hiding. A Capitol Police review of the officer’s actions found that he acted accordingly and may have saved the lives of staff members and lawmakers as the mob was trying to break into the House chamber.
Gosar added to his penchant for controversy last year when he tweeted an animated video showing him killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and committing violence against Biden, something he contended was a parody for the battle over immigration while also saying he wasn’t aware of the violence in the video before he tweeted it. As a result, Gosar was subjected to a rare censure by the House last November — the first member to endure such a rebuke in nearly 11 years — and then was booted from his two committee assignments.
And this year, as Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on, Gosar has been among the handful of House Republicans who have voted against bills aimed at showing support for Ukraine. Most recently, he was one of just 10 House members to vote against a bill last week aimed at making it easier to lend weapons systems to help Ukraine defend itself.
But his spending habits have gotten less scrutiny — even as they far exceed his own congressional colleagues. In his first full year in Congress in 2011, Gosar’s spending was comparable to most of his colleagues — about $75,000. That year, a fellow Arizonan, Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, spent $79,000 in his travel budget, the analysis shows.
But over the next decade, Gosar’s travel expenses nearly doubled Grijalva’s, with the Republican’s annual expenses exceeding $115,000 — and sometimes well in excess.
In the last five years, Gosar has also spent nearly $600,000 more than his Republican colleague from Arizona, David Schweikert, on travel expenses over that same timeframe.
And in 2021 alone, he spent the most on travel of any member of the House, spending nearly $189,000 in taxpayer funds. By contrast, Rep. Andy Biggs, a fellow conservative who represents a neighboring Arizona district, spent just over $69,000 in taxpayer-funded travel expenses in 2021.
Taxpayer advocates at the Moonlight Foundation say the Gosar case shows — at the very least — the need for more transparency by members of Congress.
“Far too often, Congressional travel budgets are treated like personal slush funds by lawmakers,” Goll said. “While some travel expenses are necessary to serve constituents, ballooning travel budgets show the need for better disclosures. For instance, detail of where, when, and what purpose lawmakers use taxpayer money to travel outside of their districts ought to be disclosed.”