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Lawmakers Using Public Funds for Eye-Catching Purchases

WASHINGTON -- Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings spent $24,730 in taxpayer money last year to lease a 2008 luxury Lexus hybrid sedan. Ohio Rep. Michael Turner expensed a $1,435 digital camera. Eni Faleomavaega, the House delegate from American Samoa, bought two 46-inch Sony TVs.

The expenditures were legal, properly accounted for and drawn from allowances the U.S. government grants to lawmakers. Equipment purchased with office expense accounts must be returned to the House or the federal General Services Administration when a lawmaker leaves office.

But as British politicians come under widening scorn for spending public money on everything from candy bars to moat-dredging, an examination of U.S. lawmakers' expense claims shows Washington's elected officials have also used public funds for eye-catching purchases.

U.S. politicians, unlike their counterparts in Great Britain, can't bill taxpayers for personal living expenses. The U.S. Treasury gives them an allowance to cover "official and representational expenses," according to congressional rules, and the lawmakers enjoy a fair amount of discretion in how they use the funds.

The Senate and House release volumes of the reimbursement requests for these allowances, but do not make them available electronically. A Wall Street Journal review of thousands of pages of these records for 2008 expenses showed most lawmaker spending flowed to areas such as staff salaries, travel, office rent and supplies, and printing and mailing.

But it also turned up spending on an array of products, from the car leases and electronics to a high-end laptop computer and $22 cell phone holder. Rep. Howard Berman expensed $84,000 worth of personalized calendars, printed by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, for his constituents. A spokeswoman for Mr. Berman, a California Democrat, didn't return requests for comment.

The records show that some lawmakers spent heavily in the final months of the year to draw down allowances before the end of December -- a time when U.S. households were paring their budgets and lawmakers were criticizing Detroit auto executives for taking private aircraft to Washington to plead their case for taxpayer funding.

Rep. Hastings, a Democrat, and Rep. Turner, a Republican, made their purchases in the third quarter. Rep. Faleomavaega, a Democrat, bought the TVs for $1,473 apiece in mid-November. Spokespeople for the three didn't return requests for comment.

Click here to read the full story from the Wall Street Journal.