Palin's Fashion-Gate

(UPDATED) Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

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Palin in Anchorage, April 23, 2007.

Photo By Al Grillo/AP

Watchdog Files Palin Complaint


Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican National Committee and several political operatives, alleging they violated campaign finance laws after “improperly spending” nearly $150,000 on a high-end fashion shopping spree in September at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barney’s New York and Macy’s to wardrobe the Republican vice presidential candidate and her family.

In a six-page FEC complaint filed Thursday, the watchdog group, citing news reports and FEC records, pointed to clothing and accessories purchases for Palin and her family from several high-end stores, including a purchase of  $49,425 at Saks Fifth Avenue and $75,062 at Neiman Marcus, with RNC funds.

“It is ridiculous that the RNC would spend $150,000 to outfit a vice presidential nominee and her family at any time, but it is more outrageous given the dire financial straights of so many Americans and the state of our economy,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, in a statement “As if that isn’t bad enough, the expenditures violate campaign finance law. The FEC should investigate immediately.”

It is illegal for political campaigns to use funds for the “personal use” of candidates on items such as clothing. But the law has an apparent loophole for money donated by the national political parties to campaigns. The FEC has never weighed in on whether national political parties can donate funds to campaigns for personal use expenditures, such as clothing, according to a spokesman.

A McCain-Palin campaign spokeswoman has said the clothes would be donated to charity.

-Kristi Ellis

Palin's Fashiongate

At least someone is shopping: the Republicans and Sarah Palin.

Given the beleaguered state of American retailing in the downward spiraling economy, stores such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York and Macy’s no doubt welcomed the Republican National Committee’s shopping spree on behalf of Palin with open arms. In some cases, it may even have helped goose their September same-store sales. And in this day and age, anything that boosts the profile of fashion and retailing can only be a good thing.

Not that one would know it from the furor Palin’s wardrobe, hair and makeup created on Wednesday — even if the result has turned her into a politician admired for her style and stirred fashion trends nationwide, from her hairdo to her red shoes to her eyeglasses. Even her impersonator, Tina Fey, has been quoted as praising the vice presidential nominee’s looks.

Meanwhile, the hubbub over Palin’s near-$150,000 shopping spree (did she get the “friends and family” discounts?) in September continued to rumble Wednesday, with observers from the right defending it and those from the left throwing fuel onto the fire, shades of Nancy Reagan’s “Galanos-gate” in the Eighties.

In Democratic circles, there was a predictable amount of schadenfreude. “The reason it’s damaging,” said Bob Shrum, John Kerry’s campaign manager from 2004, “is that it’s water cooler-coffee shop conversation. People hear about this, they remember it, and they repeat it immediately because it undermines the whole sense that she’s just your hockey mom from down the street. We thought she was the woman in a cloth coat. Now it turns out she’s the woman in coat-ure.”

Jeffrey Toobin, a writer for The New Yorker and a CNN political analyst, agreed with that assessment: “It’s a story with no upside for the Republicans. You can debate how bad it is, but it’s certainly not something John McCain wants to spend his time thinking about right now. This is a party who made endless fun of John Edwards for his $400 haircut; what about her $150,000 wardrobe? How do you explain it?”

Many Republicans attempted not to. Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review and one of Palin’s biggest champions in the press, claimed not to have been following the saga. “Haven’t read any Palin clothes stories yet. So I’m not up to speed. Sorry!” he said by e-mail.

John Leo, who writes a column for the conservative Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, was a little more willing to admit the story posed a problem for fellow Republicans. “It’s a serious mistake,” he said. “It’s a waste of money and it plays to surfaces and all the things Republicans are supposed to oppose.”

Whichever pricy labels Palin has donned, she should not get too attached to them. “All of the clothes purchased by the RNC (not the campaign) will be donated,” campaign spokeswoman Marie Comella said in an e-mail. “The RNC purchased the items, continues to own them and will donate them at the conclusion of the campaign.” The campaign would not comment on exactly which charity will receive the designer duds. And retail and fashion industry executives generally were hiding in the bushes, declining to comment on the news.

Still, her wardrobe fell under heightened scrutiny: while the economy nosedives and the candidates spar about the financial woes of “Joe Six-Pack” — now superseded by “Joe the Plumber” — many wondered exactly what kind of clothes that amount of money buys. Palin’s style has certainly evolved in the course of two months; during her nearly two-year tenure as the governor of Alaska, she showed an affinity for fitted blazers, the occasional twinset, and the requisite fur-hooded winter jacket. For some photo-ops, she even went casual, donning T-shirts, while her inauguration dress — a magenta confection with long sleeves — had a distinctly “Dynasty”-esque look.
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