For many Chicago families, vacation dreams often involve, at best, a trip to the Wisconsin Dells or the Indiana Dunes. A stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Wynn in Las Vegas would be far outside the family budget.
But many of the members of Congress those same families elect appear to enjoy lavish lifestyles, funded by political action committees which require little or no documentation. The so-called Leadership PACs were designed to provide congressmen with funds to donate to candidates and causes they support. But regulation is scant, and the detail provided by the keepers of those funds is often most always kept to the bare minimum.
"A Leadership PAC is another pot of money which members of congress have access to," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The PACs started as vehicles for members to stage their own campaigns for leadership positions in their respective parties. They have morphed into something substantially larger.
"Members of Congress can lead much more extravagant lifestyles than their salaries would suggest, mostly because of leadership PAC funds," Sloan said. "And this is entirely hidden, and this is the kind of story which most constituents know nothing about."
Open the filings which the keepers of those funds are required to provide, and you'll often find tens of thousands spent on exclusive restaurants, luxury hotels, and swanky resorts. Documentation can be as minimal as "PAC meal", or "PAC lodging". And it's all perfectly legal.
"Right," says Sloan. "If a member wants to spend that money on an expensive plane trip, or a hotel or a vacation, there's really nothing in the law that prohibits this."
NBC5 Investigates examined all of the Leadership PAC's of the Illinois Congressional delegation. Only one congressman, Democrat Mike Quigley, was willing to provide documentation for how his PAC money was spent. Some others didn't reply at all. Others gave terse statements declaring that they complied with the letter of the law.
"These are not supposed to be slush funds so that lobbyists and others seeking influence can contribute in order to help support a member's lifestyle," Sloan said. "I think they'd be in a hurry to tell you if the purposes were all innocent and legitimate."
Take Peoria Republican Aaron Schock's Generation-Y PAC, for example. According to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission, the fund started 2012 with $50,004.18 cash on hand. Over the next 24 months, the PAC had total receipts of $550,633.00. About half of that came from other PACs. But of the over $600,000.00 available to spend, less than half of GEN-Y's disbursements went to candidates and committees. More than $250,000.00 went to expenses apparently involved in running the PAC itself.
That included over $56,000.00 spent at hotels. During the 24-month period examined by NBC5 Investigates, the Schock PAC listed three stays at the legendary Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, totaling $9,462.27. There were three nights at L.A.'s luxurious Mondrian, and other stays at the Luxe and Beverly Wilshire. Gen-Y dropped another $12,285.00 at the Wynn in Las Vegas. In Chicago, the PAC listed 14 stays totaling over $11,000.00 at the Peninsula, and another four stopovers at the Trump.
The Generation-Y PAC dropped over $26,000.00 on private aircraft. Fine restaurants across the country added another $36,909.00. They shelled out $11,604.00 at a Colorado ski resort, with hundreds more for snowmobile rentals - all during a 24-month period.
Who enjoyed the largesse? Schock's staffers won't say.
"Gen-Y conducts its activities with all applicable rules and regulations," campaign spokesman Karen McDonald told NBC5 Investigates in a statement. "All activity is properly disclosed, and the committee is in full compliance with federal campaign finance laws."
"This is all we're offering on the record," she said.
"I think the reason they don't tell you is they have no good reason why members of Congress need to stay at the most expensive hotels in Los Angeles," Sloan said. "They'd rather not talk about it, and hope that it's just ignored, and their constituents don't notice."
Sloan and her organization point to one other tantalizing fact: The source of Leadership PAC funds. Often, thousands upon thousands of dollars come from the political action committees of special interest groups, hoping to curry favor.
"I think constituents have a right to wonder why somebody would give you so much money, what they would want in return, and how you're spending the money," she said. "It's a completely reasonable question for any constituent to ask."
Click here to view a three-month sampling of all of the "Itemized Disbursements" which NBC5 Investigates found for GEN-Y PAC over a three-month period in early 2013.