Former Florida Rep. Ros-Lehtinen under federal probe for spending

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Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) speaks to the media at Miami International Airport on January 30, 2017, in Miami. - Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America/TNS

MIAMI — Federal authorities are investigating thousands of dollars in suspicious personal spending by former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on trips to Disney World, New York and other destinations, after the Miami Republican announced she was retiring in 2017, according to her defense attorney.

Miami attorney Jeff Weiner said the Justice Department’s investigation into Ros-Lehtinen’s alleged spending of campaign money from her political action committee on personal trips lacks any basis for a criminal case.

“There may have been mistakes made, but they were absolutely not criminal,” Weiner told the Miami Herald late Wednesday. He added that the former congresswoman and her staff have been cooperating with federal authorities and turning over campaign finance and other records subpoenaed by the Justice Department.

Weiner said that all of the spending in question was for politically related activities and was reported properly to the Federal Election Commission. “This should be an administrative matter,” he said.

Ros-Lehtinen, a prominent political figure who served in Congress for 30 years, could not be reached for comment.

News of the federal investigation by the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C., was first reported by CBS4 in Miami. A spokesperson for the Justice Department declined to comment.

In a statement sent to CBS4 and later to the Miami Herald, Weiner said there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Ros-Lehtinen.

“We are gathering the information requested by the Department of Justice and are confident that, if bookkeeping errors were committed, they were due to negligence, and not willful or intentional misconduct by the former congresswoman or anyone on her staff, or her accountants,” Weiner said.

“As my team and I have investigated and studied the facts in this matter, we have not found any evidence whatsoever of intentional wrongdoing by Ileana or anyone on her behalf.”

After announcing on April 30, 2017 that she would not seek reelection in 2018, Ros-Lehtinen transferred more than $177,000 from her reelection campaign account to IRL PAC, a political action committee that she controlled, according to CBS4. That is a common practice when politicians announce their retirement. Some of the IRL PAC’s spending is political in nature but under federal law, none of the campaign funds can be spent on “personal use.”

The IRL PAC expense reports show a series of questionable expenditures, including about $4,000 on the family trip to Disney World in December 2017; more than $10,000 on rooms at the Lotte New York Palace in New York; about $6,000 on rooms and meals at the Ritz-Carlton resort on Amelia Island in northern Florida; and another $28,000 at the W Hotel on South Beach.

Before leaving office, she spent $3,100 at MesaMar, a high-end seafood restaurant in Coral Gables, on New Year’s Eve in 2018, according to the PAC’s expense reports.

Ros-Lehtinen’s campaign spending was first reported by Noah Pransky on the Florida Politics website in June 2019. In turn, the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, filed a complaint in October against Ros-Lehtinen with the Federal Election Commission.

The group’s complaint alleges: “There is reason to believe that IRL PAC” violated federal law “by converting contributions for personal use, including a family trip to Disney World and tens of thousands of dollars of expenses at luxury hotels, none of which have any apparent connection to Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s candidacy or duties as an officeholder.”

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