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Cravaack's spending comes under scrutiny

Chip Cravaack, Republican candidate for U.S. House, Minnesota's Eighth District

Congressman Chip Cravaack may have had better days than yesterday.

The 8th District representative was singled out in an article that appeared Wednesday on the website Politico, which found that GOP freshmen have spent tens of thousands of dollars on cars, public relations and mass mailings, all at taxpayer expense. Among those expenses: $1,700 for the initial lease of a 2011 Chevrolet Equinox AWD for Cravaack to travel his district, and about $1,000 a month after that.

The Minnesota DFL party jumped on the story, implying in a statement that Cravaack is a hypocrite for claiming to be a fiscal conservative, yet spending so much on a car.

"Where was the common sense perspective when you chose to make taxpayers pay $1,000 a month for you to lease an automobile?" DFL Chair Ken Martin wrote in a letter to Cravaack.

Cravaack's spokesman, Shawn Ryan, said in a statement that the car ultimately saves taxpayers money because it's the least expensive option for Cravaack and his staff to travel the district. Other options would include renting cars or driving staffers' own cars, which Ryan said would be more expensive because they would be reimbursed for mileage.

Just last week staff members drove 1,600 miles around the district in the leased Chevrolet, Ryan said. If they drove their own cars, the mileage reimbursement would have totaled more than $800 for that week alone.

"It would be more expensive to pay staff mileage reimbursements at the federal rate of 51 cents per mile than it is to lease this vehicle," he said.

Ryan said Cravaack's staff had to pay more for the lease because congressional rules limit the contract to

22 months, rather than the usual 39 months, and because it's expected that 30,000 miles will be put on the car in a year, instead of the usual 12,000. The car also had to meet greenhouse gas emission standards.

"What I don't want to get lost in all this is that the 8th District now has a representative who is actually traveling around the district meeting with constituents on almost a weekly basis and doing it in the most cost-effective way available to him," Ryan said. "That just wasn't the case with the previous representative for northeast Minnesota."

The staff also wanted an SUV to travel through inclement weather in the northern parts of the district.

A record of congressional expenditures reviewed by the News Tribune shows Cravaack was one of only two Minnesota congressional members who leased a car at taxpayer expense. The other, Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of the 7th District, leased two cars for a starting cost of $1,512. Those vehicles, 2008 and 2009 Ford Focuses, now run a total of $652 a month, said Allison Myhre, Peterson's spokeswoman.

The spending records show that through the first three months of 2011 no member of Minnesota's congressional delegation has spent less on total expenses than Cravaack. His office spent nearly $80,000 less than the top spender in the state, Republican Rep. John Kline, who represents the southern part of the state and whose office spent $310,981 on staff, travel and mailings.

Part of that expense came from $10,152 in mass mailing and communications. By law, Congress can spend an unlimited amount on those mailings -- also called franking -- which are paid for by taxpayers.

Most of that is largely unsolicited, and often resembles campaign mailing, said Pete Sepp, executive director for the nonpartisan National Taxpayers Union.

"The expenditure may not be all that large compared to the federal budget, but is significant when compared to congressional campaign spending," he said. "There is a great deal of influence it can have in granting an advantage toward an incumbent."

Cravaack sent out 80,000 pieces of mail and spent $3,600 on franking through the end of March, an amount dwarfed by fellow Republican Congressman Erik Paulsen, who spent $43,527, the most of any Minnesota member of congress.