All the Crazy Things America’s Corrupt Public Officials Bought with Your Money This Year

In 2018, political theater came with an especially hefty price tag. Here's what the graftiest, shadiest public officials in the national swamp have been up to with you hard-earned tax dollars.

In 2018, political theater came with an especially hefty price tag. Here’s what the graftiest government employees in the Swamp have been up to with your hard-earned tax dollars this year. Illustration by Eli Neugeboren

John Steinbeck once said “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts.” He was referring to the fear of losing power, but John may have changed his tune if he saw the orgy of first-class flights, six-figure office doors, and sweetheart Chick-Fil-A franchise deals our government officials have been dining out on in 2018. The year was an especially eventful one for head-scratching corruption scandals and wanton government spending. Indeed, the swamp spillethed over, from Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s $100,000 taxpayer-funded extra-marital affair to Ben Carson’s exceptionally expensive taste in dining decor—not to mention our Air Force’s embarrassing affinity for high-end drinking vessels and $14,000 toilet seats. And then there’s the personal dental bills and car payments, the cheap cigars and perfume, and the $1,560 monogrammed pens. Shameless schemes were exposed at every level of government and on both ends of the political spectrum, proving once again that in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.

 

Swamp Thing—Scott Pruitt, Former EPA Chief

Turns out that drainage hose they hooked up to the swamp was just Scott Pruitt’s bendy straw. The Oklahoma native resigned in July after facing a firestorm of criticism for a series of controversies connected to his penchant for using government funds for personal pampering. He spent over $130,000 on travel alone during his 18-month tenure as EPA administrator, including employing private planes and military jets for air transportation. Even when he did fly commercial, Pruitt would only do so in first class, a move he defended by suggesting that riding coach would subject him to angry citizens and “endanger his life.” Yet while Pruitt was freewheeling with our IRS cash, he was notoriously stingy with his own, routinely asking EPA staffers to put his hotel reservations on their personal credit cards.

Pruitt’s violations hardly stopped there. He also enlisted his aids for a number of personal tasks, including trying to land his wife a job with the Republican Attorneys General Association and a franchise with Chick-Fil-A, which he referred to as a “franchise of faith.” He also had a soundproof booth installed in his office for $43,000, spent $1,560 on a 12-pack of pens sporting his signature and the EPA seal, lived for six months in a Capitol Hill condo owned by a healthcare lobbyist whose husband lobbied for the EPA, and regularly sent his staff out on his personal errands. And the list goes on.

Can’t Buy Me Love—Megan Barry, Nashville Mayor

It’s damaging enough for a politician to get caught having an extramarital affair, but Megan Barry took things to a whole new level while serving as Nashville’s mayor. In January, it was revealed that Barry had engaged in a lengthy liaison dangereuse with Nashville Police Sergeant Robert Forrest Jr.—the head of her security detail and a married man. Forrest Jr. went everywhere with Barry during their two-year-long relationship, from late-night concerts and yoga classes to several trips abroad, racking up hundreds of overtime hours in the process. In total, the couple traveled alone on ten of Barry’s trips, including a romantic getaway to Greece that cost Nashville tens of thousands of dollars. After thwarting requests for her resignation, the Tennessee Democrat finally stepped down on March 6th and plead guilty to felony theft. She’s since agreed to serve three years probation and reimburse the city $11,000 for “unlawful expenditures” allocated for Forrest’s travel expenses. The now-retired police sergeant was also ordered to return $45,000 he was wrongly paid during instances when “he was not performing his duties.”

Dinner For Schmucks—Ben Carson, the Sleepiest HUD Secretary

Carson’s appointment as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development raised plenty of eyebrows when it was announced back in December 2016. For one, he was a political novice with zero experience in the field of urban development. He’d also rejected the idea that government programs can help combat poverty—a huge reversal from pretty much every HUD secretary before him. But while many expected the former neurosurgeon to silently slash the department’s spending on programs for the homeless, elderly and poor, he made headlines for far different reasons: Carson used department funds to purchase a new mahogany dining room set worth a reported $31,000. The set, which included a custom hardwood table, chairs, and a hutch, was purchased shortly after Carson’s wife was exposed for pressuring HUD officials to scrape together money (through legal or illegal means) to complete an extensive redecoration of his offices. He later defended the purchase in front of a House Appropriations subcommittee, claiming the previous table was “actually dangerous” for anyone who used it.

Aiming High in All the Wrong Ways—The U.S. Air Force 

Nothing beats a piping cup of joe at 10,000 feet. Just ask America’s Air Force: the branch has spent nearly $330,000 on outrageously epensive coffee mugs designed to reheat beverages in-flight, including roughly $60,000 in 2018. Unfortunately, the mugs—which price out at $1,280 each—come equipped with extremely fragile handles, causing them to break frequently in the air. Rather than searching for a cheaper alternative, the Air Force has instead repeatedly ordered new batches of the tiny money pits. After receiving a scathing tongue lashing from Senator Chuck Grassley in October, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson assured lawmakers that the branch is now working on a way to 3D print replacement handles at a price of 50 cents each. American innovation at its best. It wasn’t enough for Grassley, who lambasted the Pentagon in a December New York Times op-ed titled “These Toilet Seat Lids Aren’t Gold-Plated, but They Cost $14,000,” referring to the Air Force’s long-maligned replacement seat covers on a Vietnam-era cargo plane.

Don’t Let the $139,000 Door Hit You—Ryan Zinke, Interior Secretary

Carson wasn’t the only cabinet member to shell out stacks of taxpayer Benjamins to spruce up his workspace: In early March, Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was caught spending an impossible $139,000 on new doors for his office suite. Zinke’s spokeswoman was quick to brush the purchases off as a symptom of outdated government procurement rules and overregulation, but as the investigations piled up—at one point there were over ten active inquiries into Zinke’s actions since taking over Interior—a larger pattern has emerged. In addition to his champagne tastes, the former Navy SEAL’s coordination with energy giant Halliburton on a massive land deal for a development in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana appears to be a clear breach of ethics rules. Zinke, who would stand to benefit financially from the project, met with its developers in his Interior office to discuss their construction plans, which included building a hotel, microbrewery, and a series of retail shops. The former congressman has also shown a flair for luxury travel; he’s been a frequent flyer on private charter planes and government helicopters, including a $6,250 chopper flight to meet Vice President Mike Pence for a horseback ride. For months, Zinke defended his frivolous spending and rebuked his critics, even calling one Arizona congressman a drunk while demanding his resignation. But with political pressure mounting, the embattled Montanan finally announced plans to resign this month.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., is interviewed about his vaporizer pen in his Rayburn office.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., is interviewed about his vaporizer pen in his Rayburn office. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Duncan’s Dough Nuts—California Congressman Duncan Hunter

If you’re looking for a lawmaker who knows how to work the system, Duncan Hunter’s your man. The GOP congressman representing California’s staunchly conservative 50th District was indicted alongside his wife, Margaret, in August for allegedly using $250,000 in campaign funds for a myriad of personal expenses. The Hunters are said to have dropped $704 of our money on tickets to the play How The Grinch Stole Christmas, $700 to pay down their family’s overdue balance at a dental practice in La Mesa, California, yet another $14,000 on a family vacation, and nearly $1,000 more to fly Margaret’s mother and her boyfriend to Warsaw, Poland. According to the Department of Justice, Hunter and his wife also spent tens of thousands of dollars on smaller items, like $462 on 30 shots of tequila and a steak dinner, a $300 shopping spree at Target, $200 on running shoes, and $250 to fly the family’s pet rabbit to D.C. for a family vacation—all of which they allegedly attempted to file in false reports to the Federal Election Commission. The Hunters are now facing a bevy of charges, including conspiracy to commit offenses against the U.S. and wire fraud, but the Republican lawmaker has continued to proclaim his innocence. Miraculously, the strategy worked; Hunter was re-elected in November. He and Margaret are due in court in September of 2019.

Sorry Not Sorry—Blake Farenthold, Texas Congressman

Earlier this year, news broke that Farenthold, a four-term Republican out of southeast Texas, had used our money to settle an $84,000 harassment claim made against him 2014. The settlement was paid to a female staffer who’d sued him for sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and creating a hostile work environment—which included telling her and other women in his office that he’d had “sexual fantasies” and “wet dreams” about them. After months of pressure to step down, the former conservative shock jock eventually resigned in April, promising to pay back the money he’d used to settle. He’s since reneged on that promise and, by all accounts, no longer plans to reimburse any of the money. Farenthold has, however, landed a new job: lobbying Congress.

A Picture Perfect Ending—Chris Christie, former New Jersey Governor

If there’s anything we know about Christie, it’s that the former New Jersey governor loves his scandals. Back in 2013’s Bridgegate, several of his staffers and appointees colluded to create traffic jams in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in retaliation against the city’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, for not supporting Christie’s gubernatorial re-election bid. But Christie made this list for a far more recent—and ridiculous—reason: Before leaving office in November, he paid $85,000 in government funds for an official portrait, which is more than his previous three predecessors spent combined. While it wasn’t an illegal move (outgoing New Jersey governors are allowed up to $250,000 to cover office space, pay staff, and fund others services), it was a fittingly exorbitant end to Christie’s outsize time in office.

Horsing AroundGreg Fischer, Louisville Mayor

The Kentucky Derby is known for its luxurious accommodations and entertainment, and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer knows how to dole out both. Fischer came under fire this summer after reports confirmed he used $109,000 in taxpayer dollars to entertain a group of secret guests during the race in May. According to city records, Fischer deployed government funds to cover everything from $72,000 in tickets to Churchill Downs and nearly $30,000 on rooms at the Omni Hotel in downtown Louisville to $300 customized magnetic name tags and $213 worth of umbrellas and plastic bags from Dollar Tree.

A Smoky Backroom of One’s Own—Jacob Gold, Brooklyn District Leader

As a district leader representing Brooklyn’s Park Slope, Ditmas Park, and other nearby neighborhoods, Jacob Gold’s elected position isn’t a paid one. But rather than lament the lack of compensation for his hard work, the real estate agent and former school teacher simply reached into his campaign funds whenever he needed a little extra pocket money. Between 2007 and 2017, Gold spent $132,432, including at least $41,000 on items like cigars, perfume, clothes at JoS. A. Bank, and tickets for the New York Cosmos, a soccer team that plays in Coney Island. Gold also used more than $16,000 to cover monthly car payments. The Brooklynite’s political star came crashing down when his spending habits were made public in May by the New York Post. He resigned less than a week later.

Sleeping With the Enemy—Jon Stanard, Utah State Senator

A prime candidate for hypocrite of the year, Jon Stanard is a Utah state senator who resigned in February after he was caught sleeping with an escort in tax-funded hotel rooms. The self-described “advocate for conservative family values” and “traditional marriage” had made a name for himself crusading for tougher penalties for prostitution. According to reports, the senator—who voted to raise the penalty for soliciting sex in Utah to $2,500—paid $250 to Brie Taylor for sex on two different occasions. Although according to Taylor, the pair spent most of their one-hour sessions chatting because the sex “went pretty quickly.” Taylor also said Stanard informed her he didn’t typically hire escorts in his hometown of St. George, Utah because it’s “really culturally strict down there.”

Flagrant Flyer—Tom Price, Former Health and Human Services Secretary

Like Pruitt, Price wasn’t a big fan of flying coach. During his tenure as HHS head, Price logged more than two dozen flights on private jets, racking up over $400,000 in travel expenditures. Oftentimes, the costly trips were as short as from Washington to Philadelphia, a distance of roughly 140 miles that cost $25,000 to fly by charter plane. Price stepped down in September, but not before vowing to repay a tiny fraction of the cost of his flights, a selfless move he described as “unprecedented” during an interview on Fox News.

Jesus Saves (Other People’s Money)—Mary Shelton Washington, Noxubee County Chancery Clerk

It’s great to give back to your community, but Washington got a little carried away when she used $20,000 in taxpayer money to pay church tithes. These funds, which were intended to be used for office expenses, were given to several churches in Washington’s Mississippi community over a two-year span. They were discovered this summer by Mississippi State Auditor Shad White, who informed Washington she owed the state $38,555.78, including interest and investigative costs. “It should go without saying that you can’t use taxpayers’ money to pay your tithe to your church,” White said.

All the Crazy Things America’s Corrupt Public Officials Bought with Your Money This Year