Capitol Assets: Some legislators send millions to groups connected to their relatives
By Scott Higham, Kimberly Kindy and David S. Fallis,
Some members of Congress send tax dollars to companies, colleges and community groups where their spouses, children and parents work as salaried employees, lobbyists or board members, according to an examination of federal disclosure forms and local public records by The Washington Post.
A U.S. senator from South Dakota helped add millions to a Pentagon program his wife evaluated as a contract employee. A Washington congressman boosted the budget of an environmental group that his son ran as executive director. A Texas congresswoman guided millions to a university where her husband served as a vice president.
Those three members are among 16 who have taken actions that aided entities connected to their immediate families. The findings stem from an examination by The Post of all 535 members of the House and Senate, comparing their financial disclosure forms with thousands of public records. The examination uncovered a broad range of connections between the public and private lives of the nation’s lawmakers.
Several of the cases have received previous media attention, raised by local newspapers or campaign opponents, but the practice has continued unabated, The Post found.
Lawmakers said in interviews that the actions they took were not intended to directly benefit their relatives or themselves. Instead, they say, the largesse was meant to assist corporations, educational programs and community organizations that employ, educate and help residents in their congressional districts.
In some cases, the lawmakers sought advice from congressional committees assigned to examine possible conflicts on Capitol Hill. The panels informed them that the practice of earmarking money to the workplaces of relatives is permissible, as long as tax dollars are not going directly to or solely benefitting their husbands, wives, sons or daughters. Several of the lawmakers also certified to congressional committees that neither they nor their immediate family members stood to benefit from the earmark in question.
Members of Congress have more leeway than executive branch officials or individuals in publicly held companies, who operate under stricter conflict-of-interest rules that generally prevent them from taking actions that might benefit businesses or institutions where their relatives work. The legislators set and enforce their own rules, giving themselves broad latitude to take steps that can end up directly benefiting their immediate family.
“The executive branch has far stricter ethics standards than Congress does — and Congress has set these standards,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a nonprofit government watchdog group. “The executive branch can’t steer contracts or work to businesses where family members work. They can’t even own stock in industries that they oversee, unlike Congress. It’s complete hypocrisy.”
Members engaged in behavior that included directly funding programs run by their children, earmarking money to entities represented by their lobbyist relatives and sending tax dollars to colleges where their family members work or serve on boards of trustees.
Although members of Congress declared a two-year moratorium on earmarks last year, efforts to insert targeted spending provisions into bills continue. Lawmakers attempted to put 115 of the provisions worth $834 million into a House defense bill last year. The provisions were stripped from the bill after they became public late last year.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a leading critic of earmarks, said the efforts to amend the defense bill underscore how deeply committed Congress is to retaining its provincial spending practices. Last week, the Senate defeated a proposal co-sponsored by McCaskill and authored by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) that would have permanently banned earmarks. But the Senate extended the moratorium another year.
Before the moratorium went into effect, the ability of lawmakers to earmark tax dollars to specific programs and geographic locations was one of their most cherished political prerogatives. Since 2007, senators have required themselves to certify that neither they nor their “immediate” family members have any financial interests in the programs benefiting from their official actions. Under House rules, however, lawmakers are required to certify only that neither they nor their spouses hold a financial stake in their earmarks, not other members of their immediate families.
Congressional files are replete with copies of these self-certifications. Most of them contain identical language, and few disclose that lawmakers have relatives who are employed by the organizations about to benefit from their benevolence. Officials at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit group that monitors congressional spending, said they could not recall the last time a lawmaker was disciplined for using an earmark to benefit his or her relatives.
‘An experienced educator’
For years, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) has supported a Pentagon program called Starbase that teaches science, math and engineering skills to children in dozens of locations around the country.
Johnson is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Pentagon’s budget. In 2008, Johnson, along with seven other senators, added $4 million to the Starbase budget.
At the time, Johnson’s wife, Barbara, was paid an annual salary of $80,000 as a contract employee to evaluate the program. From 2005 to September, she worked for the Spectrum Group, a lobbying and consulting firm in Alexandria, that has a $1 million Pentagon contract to monitor Starbase. A social worker and educator, Barbara Johnson was also assigned to manage its Web site.
Spectrum President Gregory L. Sharp said he hired the senator’s wife because of her history of working with children.
“She was looking for a job,” Sharp said. “We didn’t hire her because of her husband. We didn’t hire her for that reason. She was an experienced educator.”
Barbara Johnson said in an interview she took the job around the time her husband started having health problems. He later had a brain hemorrhage in December 2006.
Shortly after hiring the senator’s wife, Spectrum filed a lobbying registration form with the House and Senate naming Barbara Johnson as a lobbyist for the company. The form listed Starbase as her only client.
Sharp said the form was submitted in error.
“That was a mistake. She never lobbied the Hill,” he said. “She never lobbied her husband.”
“I was never a lobbyist,” Barbara Johnson said.
Perry Plumart, a spokesman for the senator, said Johnson played no role in his wife’s employment and had no contact with Pentagon Starbase officials. Plumart said the senator didn’t think it was necessary to disclose his wife’s employment in certifications filed with the Appropriations Committee because the money he added to the program was technically not an earmark.
The senator’s spokesman said the money was not an earmark because it was added to an existing program, not intended for any specific aspect of Starbase, and the request for additional funds was not directed to Johnson’s home state of South Dakota.
“Senator Johnson’s support of increased funding for STARBASE was not an earmark under the definition of a congressionally directed spending item as defined by the Senate Rules,” Plumart said in a statement.
Directors of government watchdog groups disputed that assessment.
“That’s an earmark,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “His wife supervises the thing. It’s not like he can say this doesn’t benefit what his wife does. At some point, she has a right to earn a living, but at some point he’s got to say, ‘The optics of this are not very good.’ ”
An earmark expert agreed. “It’s absolutely an earmark,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, another organization in Washington that tracks congressional spending. “It went to a program that benefits his wife. We would consider that an earmark because it’s an increase in the budget specifically requested by members of Congress.”
Barbara Johnson said she sought an oral opinion from the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to ensure that her employment “wasn’t crossing any lines.” She said she couldn’t recall when she sought the opinion or who she met with at the ethics committee, but she said she was told that her employment was permitted under Senate rules. “They said it didn’t pose any conflict,” she said.
‘She was never my motivation’
Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which has jurisdiction over the budget of the National Nuclear Security Administration. The Energy Department agency is tasked with securing the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and preventing nuclear proliferation.
During the past six years, the congressman has directed the agency to send millions to fund the scholarship program for at-risk high school students headed by his daughter in Arizona. She earns $75,774 a year.
Pastor obtained a $1 million federal grant for the Achieving a College Education program at the Maricopa Community Colleges about four years before his daughter, Laura, was hired as its director in 2005. Since that time, Pastor has earmarked about $4 million from the nuclear agency for the program, records show.
Pastor said he’s proud of the earmarks and pointed out that he has sent money to educational programs across his congressional district in Phoenix. Maricopa’s ACE program provides financial support to high school students who are in danger of not graduating, enabling them to take classes and summer camps to build math and science skills and attend college. While the money goes to the program, Pastor said his daughter’s salary is covered by the college.
“The perception is that you helped your daughter, but if you evaluate the kids who benefited from this, it was worth doing,” the congressman said. “I believe thousands of kids have a better life today because of this program.”
Pastor said he was searching to find ways to support the ACE scholarship program in 2005, when one of his colleagues on the appropriations committee said the nuclear security administration had grants available to fund programs at historically black colleges.
Given this, Pastor said he felt it was appropriate to earmark money from the nuclear agency to Maricopa because the students in the program are largely Hispanic. At the time, he said, he did not know that his daughter was applying for a job to head the program.
“She was never my motivation,” Pastor said. “I wasn’t aware she was applying. If I knew, I would have contacted the chancellor and said, ‘What kind of position does this put you and me in?’ ”
Pastor filed three certifications between 2008 and 2010 stating that “neither I nor my spouse has any financial interest in this project.” Had he been a senator, Pastor would have been required to further certify that no “immediate” family members had an interest.
Laura Pastor declined to be interviewed. She said in a statement: “I applied for several positions at the Maricopa Community Colleges because I wanted to return to work in education. I was well qualified for my position, having administered a similar type of program in Chicago before returning to Arizona. I was chosen through a competitive process.”
Tom Gariepy, a spokesman for Maricopa, said, “She was the best person for the job.”
The Arizona Republic reported in 2007 that Laura Pastor was not the highest-ranked candidate for the position but had received a salary at the top of the pay scale. The paper also discovered that an equal-opportunity investigator had warned college officials that “we will not be able to totally defend the hiring decision.”
After the hiring story faded, Pastor continued to earmark money for the ACE program, The Post found. Pastor has also secured earmarks for other colleges, including $185,000 to Pima Community College, $1.6 million to Arizona State University and $8.7 million to the University of Arizona. More than a third of his college earmarks — $4.2 million to his daughter’s program and an additional $2 million to a different program — have gone to Maricopa.
A spokesman for the nuclear security administration said in a statement that the use of the earmarked money was appropriate.
“Congress has authority for all earmarks and makes those decisions,” Joshua McConaha said in the statement. “This program is not unique within NNSA or within the federal government. . . . Recruiting and retaining the next generation of scientists and engineers is a priority for us because the types of people we need to execute our mission are highly sought after.”
The Post found a pattern of members of Congress who earmarked funds for colleges where their relatives were employed or on boards.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) has championed millions in earmarks to the University of Houston while her husband, Elwyn C. Lee, has helped to run the school as a senior administrator.
The congresswoman or her staff have met with other top university officials to discuss funding for school programs.
“We greatly appreciate the Congresswoman’s support over the years and hope that she can help us again this year with these requests,” a school official wrote to a staff assistant for the lawmaker in May 2011, according to internal e-mails obtained through a public records request.
Elwyn Lee has worked at the university since 1978. Twenty years later, he had risen to dual executive roles: vice president of student affairs for the university and vice chancellor of student affairs for the university system. Last March, he was named the university’s vice president for community relations and institutional access.
Since 1994, his salary has almost doubled, to $210,491 a year.
Jackson Lee, who took office in 1995, discloses her husband’s job on her financial disclosure form. She has helped obtain four congressional earmarks for the school totaling about $5.3 million since 2009, according to the university.
In 2009, she co-sponsored two earmarks to the university: $2.4 million for a “National Wind Energy Center,” and $476,000 for a “Center for Clean Fuels and Power Generation.” In 2010, she sponsored a $400,000 earmark to the university for teacher training and professional development and co-sponsored an additional $2 million for the wind center.
Last fiscal year, according to her Web site, she sought $16.5 million more for the university that was blocked by the earmark moratorium.
The University of Houston, which has about 36,000 undergraduates, is one of several schools Jackson Lee has supported with earmarks. She has also directed earmarks to Texas Southern University and to University of Texas programs in recent years, records show.
Jackson Lee’s staff did not respond to repeated requests for interviews and comment. Her husband said he played no role in securing the earmarks.
“None of the Congressional earmarks secured by UH was directed to the areas under my supervision,” Elwyn Lee said in a statement. “To reiterate, it is not my responsibility, and it has never been my responsibility, to secure Congressional earmarks. Therefore, there has been no conflict to manage.”
As a member of the House education committee, Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.) has secured six earmarks worth $3.3 million for a scholarship program at Rutgers School of Law in Camden.
His wife, Camille Spinello Andrews, is an associate dean of the law school “in charge of enrollment, scholarships, and special legal programs,” according to the school’s Web site.
More than half the earmarks were secured prior to 2007, before the House began to require that the spending measures be publicly disclosed. The new rules prompted Andrews to seek an ethics opinion that year. The committee concluded there was no conflict because his wife did not have an “ownership interest” in the law school and the earmarks did not “affect the spouse’s salary.”
The following year, one of Andrews’s political opponents turned the earmarks into a campaign issue. Andrews continued to earmark money for the law school scholarship program, filing certifications that stated “neither I nor my spouse has any financial interest in the project.”
The congressman said his wife has no direct oversight of the scholarship program. He added that he is proud of the earmarks, citing them as an example of why the moratorium should be lifted.
“These earmarks put money into a scholarship program that required students to provide free legal services to the poorest people in a very poor city — Camden,” Andrews said.
Camille Spinello Andrews did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment.
The congressman acknowledged that earmark abuses have taken place and the latest rule changes governing earmarks have not reformed the practice.
“When a member wants funding for a project in their district, they call or write to an unelected official in the executive branch,” he said. “Recently, I called [Transportation] Secretary Ray LaHood and asked for money for a bridge in my district. I am proud that I did that, because that bridge is needed. But the only way you know about that call is because I just told you. I believe that all these calls and letters by members should be made public. It’s perfectly legitimate for the public to ask questions about earmarks, but you can’t do that if you don’t know about them.”
From 2007 to 2009, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah)requested earmarks worth more $1.5 million for Weber State University in Ogden. Subsequent to those requests but before $1.25 million of them were ultimately secured, the university hired the congressman’s son Shule Bishop as a lobbyist. He serves as director of government relations. The congressman said the earmarks to Weber posed no conflict because none were requested when his son worked there and his son lobbies the state legislature, not Congress.
“There is no connection,” Rob Bishop said.
His spokeswoman, Melissa Subbotin, added that the congressman and his staff interact with Weber’s Washington lobbyist, not Shule Bishop.
“The congressman has been working on behalf of Weber State since he was first elected, which far predates his son’s employment there,” Subbotin noted, adding that the congressman has given earmarks to other universities in Utah.
Shule Bishop declined to discuss the earmarks. He referred questions to his supervisor, who said clear lines have been drawn to keep the congressman’s son from lobbying his father.
“I don’t know what they talk about around the dinner table when the congressman is home on the weekends, but we haven’t put him in the position of asking for things from his father,” said Brad Mortensen, who oversees lobbying efforts as Weber’s vice president for university advancement.
He said the university didn’t hire Shule Bishop because of his father’s position.
“The reason we hired Shule was because of the relationships he has in the state Capitol,” Mortensen said. “His father was speaker of the House in the Capitol. He has worked around the Capitol and knows the legislature well.”
Shule Bishop’s job title seems to reflect that he’s in charge of all lobbying efforts, but Mortensen said the state and federal lobbying shops at Weber are kept separate.
“Having the son of a congressman in a government relations role at the state level, that does create some conflicts, so we would try to make sure those discussions were ones where Shule wasn’t the one strategizing or talking to even our federal contract lobbyist, let alone his father’s office,” Mortensen said.
As a result of The Post’s inquiries, Mortensen said Weber plans to change Shule Bishop’s job title, probably to “director of state government relations.”
‘Best for his constituents’
Lawmakers also used their legislative prowess to earmark money to the clients of their lobbyist relatives.
In Chicago, the Lipinski family name carries clout. William O. Lipinski was an influential member of Congress for 22 years, serving on the House Transportation Committee and sending millions of tax dollars back to his congressional district. When Lipinski decided to step down from Congress in 2004, he persuaded Democratic Party leaders to back his son for his seat.
Since joining Congress in 2005, Rep. Daniel Lipinski has continued his father’s tradition of funding projects in Illinois as a member of the same committee. Along the way, the Chicago Democrat has helped to send federal tax dollars to a client of his father’s lobbying practice, Capricorn Communications.
Daniel Lipinski, along with other members of the Illinois congressional delegation, secured $2.5 million in earmarks since taking office for rail projects that are overseen by the Chicago Transit Authority. The CTA is one of William Lipinski’s lobbying clients and has paid the former congressman $766,330.20 in fees since 2007, according to the transit agency. Lipinski’s earmarks for his father’s client were first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times in 2010.
The CTA said in a statement that William Lipinski helps the agency with congressional contacts outside of the Illinois delegation on the House and Senate transportation committees. Other members of the Illinois congressional delegation have also earmarked money for CTA-related projects.
Daniel Lipinski declined to discuss the earmark. Through a spokesman, the lawmaker said he sees nothing improper with the arrangement and didn’t think it was necessary to obtain an opinion about the propriety of the spending from the House Ethics Committee.
“His father does not lobby him on behalf of his clients on transportation or any other issues,” spokesman Nathaniel Zimmer said. “In these, as in other areas, Congressman Lipinski is focused on doing what is best for his constituents.”
Zimmer provided a statement on Daniel Lipinski’s behalf.
“As the most senior Chicago-area member of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Lipinski has helped to secure funding for numerous important local transportation projects that are widely supported by both residents and other elected officials,” the statement said. “That our transportation infrastructure is in serious need of investment is beyond doubt, and every one of these projects fills a critical need.”
Daniel Lipinski filed the required certification with the House Appropriations Committee in April 2009.
“I certify that neither I nor my spouse has any financial interest in this project,” the congressman wrote. Under House rules, Lipinski’s certification did not need to extend to his father.
Between 2005 and 2010, Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) helped secure $21.9 million in earmarks to six clients of Alcalde & Fay, a lobbying firm that employs her daughter, The Post found. During that time, the clients paid the firm more than $1 million in fees to represent them before Congress, records show.
Other earmarks by Brown have been previously reported. She was the sole sponsor of $1.79 million in earmarks to a seventh client, the Community Rehabilitation Center. At the time, her daughter, Shantrel Brown, worked as a lead lobbyist on behalf of the center, the Florida Times-Union reported in 2010.
The earmarks were secured to help finance “substance abuse and mental health programs” at the center and to upgrade a Jacksonville, Fla., strip shopping mall where the center is located, records show. The federal lobbying reports say Shantrel Brown sought “federal funding for substance abuse and mental health programs” from 2008 to 2010.
The congresswoman declined requests for an interview and also declined to respond to written questions about the earmarks. Her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, also would not say whether the congresswoman sought an ethics opinion about the propriety of the earmarks.
Shantrel Brown did not return calls or respond to e-mails seeking comment.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a fellow Democrat from Florida, joined Brown as a co-sponsor of a $750,000 earmark for the rehabilitation center in 2010. When he later discovered that Brown’s daughter was a lobbyist for the center, he decided to withdraw his support.
“We try to do our due diligence. The center had the backing of many community leaders,” Nelson spokesman Bryan Gulley told The Post. “But when we learned her daughter was involved in lobbying for the center, that raised enough concerns that we no longer supported the project.”
Washington Post researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this article.