WASHINGTON — Hot-tubbing at a Colorado ski resort, touring vineyards in California — they sound like pretty pleasant getaways.
Members of Congress — including Reps. Lee Terry and Adrian Smith, both Nebraska Republicans — enjoy such excursions without emptying their own wallets.
That's because the trips to upscale vacation destinations are officially fundraising events. So as lawmakers relax with lobbyists and other donors, many of their expenses are covered by the political contributions they are collecting.
Terry's trip to the Napa vineyards and Smith's ski weekend at Vail are part of a growing trend of destination fundraisers.
Politicians say it's simply the reality of modern campaigning. Running a campaign takes money, and potential donors expect more attention for their contributions than a buffet line and a quick chat with the candidate.
But critics view the practice as an end run around the strict rules that have been developed over the years to prevent lobbyists from plying members of Congress and their aides with free trips, meals and gifts.
Lobbyists, who can't legally take a member of Congress out for a steak dinner, are free to make contributions either to the lawmaker's regular campaign fund or to a leadership PAC, which is a separate political action committee the candidate controls.
Those contributions can be used to pay for fundraising events, including the candidate's personal expenses, in all kinds of swanky locales.
Destination fundraisers have come under increased public scrutiny, including a recent New York Times article that profiled a fundraising ski weekend earlier this month featuring Smith and several other members of Congress.
That article described how Smith schmoozed with lobbyists and other donors at various functions in between hitting the resort's hot tub.
His dinner with the contributors included bacon-wrapped prawns, steaks and $60-a-bottle wine, according to the story, which quoted Smith saying: “This was a good way to raise some funds. With the holidays here it seems to be a good critical mass.”
The New York Times story gave examples of both Democrats and Republicans who had held destination events.
Smith declined a World-Herald request for an interview, and campaign spokeswoman Amanda Temoshek declined to provide any additional details about Smith's fundraising activities.
“In compliance with all campaign finance laws,” Temoshek said in a statement, “he raises funds both in and out of Nebraska to help get his conservative message to voters.”
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said there has been an uptick in big-event, destination fundraising in the wake of efforts to crack down on lawmakers' traveling with lobbyists.
“It's clear that there's still a keen interest in having face time with members,” McGehee said.
So while a lobbyist can't directly take a lawmaker on a fancy trip, the lobbyist can donate money to the lawmaker's campaign coffers — and that money can be used to finance a fundraising event at a luxurious resort.
“To the average person, it looks like money laundering, because it is,” McGehee said. “It's just legal.”
Not everyone goes in for the big showy events, however.
Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, haven't participated in destination fundraisers, according to their representatives.
Aides to Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and Sen. Mike Johanns, both Nebraska Republicans, also said their bosses have not held destination fundraisers.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., has made one fundraising trip to Vail, where her leadership PAC hosted two dinners, according to spokeswoman Virginia Dent.
Dent noted that fundraising expenses are kept separate from her official office budget, and said that Fischer supports transparency in the reporting of campaign finances. Fischer touted her “Nebraska-centric” campaign donor base in her successful 2012 run for office.
“The sad reality of increased outside spending and the nationalization of elections in Nebraska has forced candidates to raise money both inside and outside the state to remain competitive,” Dent said.
A campaign spokeswoman for Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said he has not held any fundraisers outside of Iowa and the Washington, D.C., area.
The leadership PAC for Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, reported paying the Venetian resort in Las Vegas about $4,000 last year in connection with a fundraising event. Latham's office referred questions about the event to the PAC treasurer, who did not respond.
Terry has been stockpiling campaign cash for his 2014 campaign for a ninth term, and began the year with $818,000 in the bank. That compares with $435,000 that he had on hand at the start of 2012. His formidable campaign war chest may have helped scare off other candidates; Democrats still are scrambling to recruit a challenger for Terry this fall.
Terry campaign officials said the Omaha congressman holds a couple of out-of-state fundraising events each year, but declined to provide further details. Instead, they pointed to his filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Those reports list donors and expenses, but provide only hints about the perks enjoyed at a destination fundraising event and which donors attended.
His campaign committee reported paying more than $17,000 in 2013 to the Cloister, a five-star resort at Sea Island on the Georgia coast, for facility rentals and catering. His Big Red PAC also paid about $9,000 earlier in the year to Sea Island Resorts for facilities rental.
Two years earlier, Terry held a Napa Valley Vineyard Weekend in California. The Sunlight Foundation obtained an invitation to that October 2011 event and posted it online.
The invitation described a $2,500-a-person weekend with Terry and his wife, Robyn, that included a Friday night dinner at the Monticello Vineyard and a Saturday evening dinner at the Silver Oak Vineyard featuring Nebraska prime beef and a vineyard tour.
Terry held another event in Napa last fall, and the expenditures reported around that time include a $318 dinner at the French Laundry, regarded by some as the best restaurant in the world.
In response to questions by The World-Herald, Terry's chief of staff, Mark Anderson, said that he attended the Napa fundraising event in Terry's place because the congressman was stuck in Washington that weekend casting votes.
As for the French Laundry dinner, Anderson said he ate alone at the restaurant, submitted his receipt for reimbursement by mistake and has since reimbursed the PAC. Terry's office declined to say when the reimbursement was made.
Though the meal was entirely legal, Anderson said he repaid the money because it was “too extravagant.”
In an interview, Terry disputed any suggestion that lawmakers holding destination fundraising events represent some new shadowy way for lobbyists to funnel perks to politicians. He dismissed the idea that the practice was newsworthy.
“I'm not sure that a politician raising money is 'man bites dog,' ” he said.
Terry said there is pressure from donors who want lawmakers to put together something special — like a trip to Napa — that is different from a typical Washington fundraiser, but that the events hardly represent a vacation for him.
“I felt like it was more work than anything else,” he said. “It's like courting a client. You try to give them what they want.”
What they want is something new and different, according to Nancy Bocskor, a fundraising professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.
A former executive director of the Nebraska GOP, Bocskor has raised money for both Smith and Terry in the past, although she said she no longer works with individual members.
Politicians are always looking for creative ways to break out of the rut and give donors something new.
She described the typical ho-hum fundraisers in Washington, usually hosted at the same venues — Republicans and Democrats have their own preferred sites. The attendees eat boring food and typically receive only a brief interaction with the lawmaker they are trying to lobby.
“While those still have a place in politics, donors and members want more personal conversation, with something a little bit deeper than just saying 'Hi, good to see you,' ” Bocskor said.
That desire to get creative can be seen even in the events lawmakers hold in Washington, D.C. Terry, for example, has two fundraisers coming up at the Verizon Center in Washington: one at a Justin Timberlake concert next month, the second tied to the college basketball matchup between Creighton and Georgetown on March 4.
Congress could always revisit campaign finance and tighten the restrictions, but McGehee was not optimistic. Instead, she is holding out hope that public contempt for the practice will prompt lawmakers to give it up.
But Bocskor said it just makes sense for lawmakers to find interesting ways to attract donors.
“Would you rather go to a grip-and-grin — and I always say eat cold quiche — at a really boring venue? Well, for the same amount of money you would be donating, why not do something fun where you get to spend more one-on-one time?”