By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - In what could be one of the largest cases of campaign embezzlement ever, the former treasurer for Rep. John Boehner's re-election fund has been accused of stealing more than $400,000 to pay for a gambling habit, the congressman announced Tuesday.
The West Chester Republican mailed a letter to 8,000 supporters Monday to alert them to "disappointment and bad news."
"In the last few weeks, we discovered that my trusted campaign treasurer embezzled funds from the Friends of John Boehner committee," he wrote. "I can tell you that the embezzled amount is significant and the deceptions were very clever."
The former treasurer, identified in election documents as Russell E. Roberts of Fairfield, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Boehner is chairman of the House Education Committee and a major GOP player in Washington. He typically raises and spends more than $1 million on each re-election despite only token opposition.
As one of the House Republicans' top fund-raisers, he also runs a separate fund-raising arm - with a different treasurer - called The Freedom Project. It raised and spent another $1.3 million in the most-recent election.
While Congress is on its spring break, Boehner is traveling the country helping other Republicans raise money. On Tuesday, he was in Georgia for an education roundtable and fund-raiser for Rep. Johnny Isakson and could not be reached for comment.
Boehner is "chagrined, disappointed, feels that he and his supporters have been betrayed," said Boehner's lawyer, Jan Baran. "He is anxious to make certain something like this never happens again."
Campaign officials notified the FBI, which is investigating. James Turgal, FBI spokesman in Cincinnati, said he couldn't comment because it was an ongoing investigation.
The transgressions came to light Tuesday because that was the deadline for filing first-quarter reports with the Federal Election Commission.
Revised campaign reports filed Tuesday by the West Chester-based Friends of John Boehner committee show numerous "unauthorized expenditures."
For example, records show he would cut himself checks for his monthly salary as often as three times in a month.
At first, he told other campaign officials that a March 2001 flood destroyed computer records related to the missing money.
But after more irregularities were discovered, Roberts "was confronted and then admitted he had been misappropriating committee funds to support a gambling habit," Baran wrote Tuesday in the letter to the FEC.
The total allegedly misspent: $418,559.38 for 2000, 2001 and 2002. Money could be missing from earlier filings, Baran said.
The Friends of John Boehner has started an audit of all financial records, Boehner wrote in his letter. In addition, all checks of more than $500 will now require two signatures.
Boehner also pledged to personally review financial records monthly.
"Safeguards that should have prevented this were not in place," Boehner acknowledged. "They are now, and to a degree not seen in most congressional campaigns."
Roberts, who is 35 and single, according to public records, was a volunteer on Boehner's first campaign for Congress in 1990. He became treasurer in 1994.
The new treasurer, Mary Dotter-Clancy, sent a letter to the FEC on March 20 alerting it that that "the former treasurer, Russell E. Roberts, has been dismissed."
Boehner represents Ohio's 8th Congressional District, which comprises Preble County and most of Butler County. The former businessman is serving his seventh term.
Donors contacted by the Enquirer said they wouldn't hesitate to donate to Boehner again.
"He'll probably ask me to give double now," Cincinnati lawyer Gregory Delev said. "And I probably will help John out in this situation."
David Belew, a Hamilton retiree, said he was surprised but would donate again.
"I have complete faith in John Boehner. I think he's a man of high moral standards and integrity," Belew said.
Embezzling money from campaign funds is not rare, partly because most campaign committees are small operations usually run by a trusted friend or volunteer.
No one requires they be audited, and most aren't, said Kent Cooper, a former Federal Election Commission official who is now vice president of a company that analyzes political financial disclosure statements and operates the Internet site PoliticalMoneyLine.com.
"You don't have the normal double-checks you have in business. Yet you have people donating thousands of dollars," he said.
"These donors should be asking the same question they ask of a charity: How is my money going to be used?"
About a dozen campaigns have reported embezzlements in the past 20 years but none as large as the Boehner case.
"$400,000. That's steep," Cooper said.
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