Representative Gregory Meeks (D) skips auto bailout vote to meet a lobbyist in a Vegas Hotel & Casino
Maybe U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks should change the name of his fund-raising committee from Build America to Travel America.
A Daily News investigation found the Queens Democrat often uses his political action committee to spend thousands of dollars on cross-country jaunts, including multiple trips to Las Vegas, and tickets to the Super Bowl.
Incredibly, he even skipped the Dec. 5 congressional hearing on the auto industry bailout and jetted off to Las Vegas for a weekend at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino on the Strip.
That's where The News found him checking in at the start of what he ultimately admitted was a two-day fund-raiser for Build America.
Earlier in the day, an aide said Meeks couldn't attend the hearing because there were "issues he had to take care of in New York." The aide said nothing about Las Vegas.
Meeks - who represents some of the poorest sections of south Queens - still travels extensively even after being criticized and fined for mixing business and pleasure while spending campaign and taxpayer dollars.
In February, the Meeks campaign paid a $63,000 fine for violating campaign finance laws in the 2004 election - including using campaign cash to hire a personal trainer, who has since joined his staff.
In the past two years, Meeks has been criticized for leasing a $998-a-month Lexus with taxpayer dollars and globetrotting on trips paid for by groups often funded by corporations and their lobbyists. He still drives the taxpayer-funded Lexus.
In April 2006, Meeks took an $11,886 trip to Doha, Qatar, paid for by the Qatari Businessmen Association. In all, Meeks has made 45 trips that cost $172,540 since 2000, records compiled by the Web site legistorm.com show.
Meeks' road fever kicked in the day the Big Three automakers appeared before the House Financial Services Committee, of which Meeks is a member.
A Meeks press release dated that day proclaimed, "Congressman Meeks Calls For Tough Standards In Exchange For Any Federal Loans To The Big Three Automakers."
That morning, his chief of staff, Sophia King, said Meeks wouldn't be attending the hearing, where he could have confronted the Big Three with his "tough standards."
"He was trying to work it out but there were some issues he had to take care of in New York," King told The News.
The hearing kicked off at 9:30 a.m. and broke at 2:30 p.m. Around that time, Meeks was on a plane headed for the Strip.
A News reporter saw Meeks arrive at the Bellagio around 5:30 p.m. Vegas time, (8:30 p.m. in New York), check in and make his way to the Petrossian Bar just off the casino floor.
Late Friday, an aide said The News was told Meeks had "issues in New York" because the congressman was in New York reviewing testimony of the hearing in D.C. The aide did not address why Vegas had not been mentioned.
A spokesman said Meeks had scheduled this fourth annual weekend-in-Vegas getaway to raise funds for Build America months before the hearing.
His campaign political director said about 40 donors and guests attended the event, which included two dinners and an afternoon "issues discussion." The invitation asked for $2,500 to become a "sponsor" and $5,000 to become a "co-host." He raised "north of $70,000" from this trip, an aide said.
In the last election cycle, Build America raised $153,541, a relatively small amount for a congressional leadership PAC.
Many members of Congress maintain similar PACs to raise money they use to garner political support by donating to other members and party organizations. Most of Build America's funds went for Meeks' travel and fund-raising expenses.
Between his PAC and his campaign, Meeks and his staff spent $3,300 to stay at Vegas hotels like the MGM Grand and Monte Carlo leading up to this year's election.
Build America is funded almost entirely by corporate PACs, mostly in the finance and pharmaceutical industries. All are acutely interested in the House Financial Services Committee of which Meeks is a member. Build America received a total of 45 donations - 42 from corporate PACs.
"I think they [leadership PACs] should be abolished," said Paul Ryan, lawyer for the Campaign Legal Service Center, a campaign finance watchdog group. "They have developed into slush funds."
In the last election cycle, Build America spent $207,608 - more than it raised, records show. Of that, $75,741 went to fellow Democrats and party committees, including $6,500 to Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who faces trial on racketeering and money-laundering charges.
Meeks declined to speak in person about his spending habits.