Missouri Rep. Cori Bush on Tuesday confirmed that she's under federal investigation for allegedly misusing campaign funds to pay for security services, allegations she denies. The story, which first was reported earlier that day by Punchbowl News, comes as Bush is trying to fend off a serious challenge from St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell in the state's Aug. 6 Democratic primary.
While many details about the Justice Department's probe have not yet been released, Bush indicated in a statement that the investigation at least partially concerns payments her campaign made to her husband, Cortney Merritts.
The congresswoman married Merritts, whom she'd previously paid for security work, in February. Her campaign went on to pay Merritts $42,500 during the first nine months of the year for "wage expense" and "security services." (Reports for the final quarter of 2023 are due by Wednesday evening.)
"In recent months, right wing organizations have lodged baseless complaints against me, peddling notions that I have misused campaign funds to pay for personal security services," the congresswoman wrote.
"In particular, the nature of these allegations have been around my husband’s role on the campaign," she continued. "In accordance with all applicable rules, I retained my husband as part of my security team to provide security services because he has had extensive experience in this area, and is able to provide the necessary services at or below a fair market rate."
Federal law, notes Politico, allows candidates to use campaign money to pay family members for security "as long as they provide a 'bona fide service' at a fair market value."
A conservative group filed a complaint last year with the Office of Congressional Ethics alleging that Bush had violated the law by continuing to employ her husband and claimed that Merritts did not have a private security license in St. Louis. (The city makes up a large portion of Bush's 1st Congressional District.) The office, however, dismissed the complaint in the fall after concluding that Merritts' service and pay fell within legal parameters.
That did not end the matter, however. Unnamed sources tell the New York Times that federal investigators have been "asking questions similar to those asked by the congressional investigators about Ms. Bush’s security expenditures and the involvement of Mr. Merritts." The paper adds that it's not clear whether the federal probe is more far-reaching than the ethics office's investigation, though the Department of Justice has considerably more power at its disposal.