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U.S. Justice Department investigating Rep. Cori Bush over spending on security

Cori Bush, a Black woman with braids and wearing a "ST. LOUIS CEASEFIRE" sweater speaks.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, speaks during a campaign event on Saturday in Northwoods. Bush, who was first elected to represent Missouri's 1st Congressional District in 2020, is up for reelection this year.

Missouri congresswoman Cori Bush said Tuesday that the Department of Justice is investigating her campaign spending on security.

Bush said she’s done nothing wrong and added that she’s cooperating fully with the investigation.

On Monday, while the U.S. House was in session, the clerk read a message that the sergeant of arms received a grand jury subpoena for documents from the U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, D.C.-based Punchbowl News reported on Monday the subpoena was related to a Democratic member possibly misusing congressional allowance funds for security.

Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman reported on Tuesday that the Democratic lawmaker was Bush, who represents Missouri’s 1st Congressional District. Bush said in a statement Tuesday that “the Department of Justice is reviewing my campaign’s spending on security services.”

Bush pushed back against Punchbowl News’ report that the investigation was related to misuse of a congressional allowance.

“Since before I was sworn into the office, I have endured relentless threats to my physical safety and my life,” Bush said. “As a rank-and-file member of Congress, I am not entitled to personal protection by the House, and instead have used campaign funds as permissible to retain security services. I have not used any federal tax dollars for personal security services. Any reporting that I have used federal funds for personal security is simply false.”

A Department of Justice spokeswoman declined to comment.

Bush’s campaign has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on security services over the years, including to Cortney Merritts. He and Bush eventually married. Her campaign has continued to pay him, according to her most recent campaign finance disclosure report.

Several organizations filed ethics complaints against Bush over the payments. The Office of Congressional Ethics recommended dismissing the complaints last year. She said in a statement at the time that the “political attacks on my campaign are a clear example of how right-wing extremist groups will stop at nothing to malign those of us unapologetically working in service of our communities.”

“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,” Bush said. “That is simply not true. I have complied with all applicable laws and House rules.”

It is not illegal for congressional campaign committees to pay relatives, as long as they’re doing “bona fide” work and are being paid fair market value. For example, Bush’s predecessor, Lacy Clay, paid his sister Michelle Clay hundreds of thousands of dollars to help run his congressional campaigns over the years.

“I retained my husband as part of my security team to provide security services because he has had extensive experience in this area,” Bush said.

“These frivolous complaints have resulted in a number of investigations, some of which are still ongoing. The Federal Election Commission and the House Committee on Ethics are currently reviewing the matter, as is the Department of Justice. We are fully cooperating in all of these pending investigations,” Bush said. “In September of last year, after conducting a months-long investigation, the Office of Congressional Ethics found no wrongdoing and voted unanimously to dismiss the case. I look forward to this same outcome from all pending investigations."

Bush is facing a Democratic primary challenge this year from St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell.

“As a prosecutor, I understand that Rep. Bush is entitled to due process,” Bell said. “I entered this race because I believe the people of this district deserve a representative they can trust who will show up and get results for them. I feel more strongly about that now more than ever.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.